Review: The dream remains distant in garishly grim 'Les Misérables'

Posted by · 8:00 am · December 26th, 2012

(I had scheduled this review to go up yesterday, but held back in the interests of not being a total Christmas Day Scrooge. Keep sharing your reactions.)

“Do you hear the people sing?” blusters the famous closing chorus of stage blockbuster “Les Misérables,” and rarely in musical theater has a question been more rhetorical. The line is an imperative, a war cry, sounding not only the purposeful social discontent firing the 1832 June Rebellion, but a proactive admonishment to the show’s critics.

“Les Mis,” to use the widespread, alternately affectionate and sneering abbreviation, may be enduringly popular, but it has never, even at its pop-cultural zenith, been fashionable: first staged in France in 1980 and hitting Broadway, via the West End, seven years later, it may predate the musical form”s postmodern embrace of irony and pastiche toward the 21st century, but its earnest emotional gesticulation and stoic romanticism perhaps seemed quaint in 1987, after the darting reflexivity of Sondheim”s prime and even against the flashier, emptier spectacle of 80s-era Lloyd Webber. Its dense book (filleted from Victor Hugo”s far denser novel) and grandiose, not-especially-clever lyrics aim to bludgeon the audience with genuine, undiluted feeling.

Many theater critics curdled in the face of all that sincerity, but it won over the punters, this one included – it was the first West End show I ever saw, as a 16 year-old tourist in London, and I left the Palace Theatre on my own castle-topped cloud, tingling with the sense of having been satisfyingly manipulated. Do you hear the people sing? How can you fail to?

I heard – and saw, in unforgiving closeup – plenty of people sing in Tom Hooper”s long-anticipated screen adaptation of this seemingly indestructible warhorse. But it”s with no small amount of dismay that I say I hardly ever felt them, so all-consuming is the directorial conception of Hooper”s waxy, unchecked, frankly appalling film.

This “Les Mis” pays quite literal lip service to the musical: the bumptious orchestrations and melodic figure-eights of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil”s score are preserved in the film”s over-cranked sound design and much-ballyhooed (if finally spotty) live-singing approach. Any lingering emotional undertow, however – either from Hugo”s sternly weighted moral tableaux or Boublil and Schönberg”s heightened repackaging thereof – seems present by accident more than design, as stray, affecting details of verbal and facial expression survive Hooper”s strangulating redesign of the material as some manner of proggy auteur piece.

Aesthetic tics recognizable from “The King”s Speech” – extravagantly canted camera angles, extreme compositional shifts in scale, studied asymmetry – are back with reinforcements here, but where they aimed to invigorate chamber-play material in Hooper”s previous film, they work to curb the epic impulses of “Les Misérables.” The show veritably spills off the stage with outsized scope and sentiment; the film, by comparison, turns positively claustrophobic as it seeks a visual intimacy the theater cannot afford, amping up individual blood, sweat and tears at the expense of the story”s communal gusto.

It”s a bold enough gambit, but Hooper”s mise-en-scène is oddly indiscriminate in its emphases, applying equivalent close-ups to a panoply of figures in varying states of emotional intensity, bobbing and weaving his camera through revolution and romance alike, never yielding to the narrative as the spatial relationships between characters are kept rigidly solo-minded.

When this cold, fussy contraption comes alive for two or three minutes – during Anne Hathaway”s bluntly impassioned, justly celebrated rendition of the show”s signature song, “I Dreamed a Dream” – even the camera”s generous fixation on her face seems more besotted with its own restraint than with the young star before it, who seems far more tuned in to her character”s tragedy than her director. Hooper, for his part, lets her tremulous closing note rest a scarce split-second before cutting, rattling off to the next set-up. This is “Les Mis” made small, not intimate; by the time even the aching three-party devotion ballad “A Heart Full of Love” is chopped up into a rotating series of sterile close-ups, you begin to wonder if Hooper himself is among the show”s unbelievers.

If it”s taken me this long to get to the core narrative of Jean Valjean, that”s because it passes almost incidentally beneath the sound and fury and garish cinematic language of this particular telling. The peasant-turned-gentleman”s quest for domestic peace and psychological redemption against the social upheavals of post-Revolution Paris is a hero”s quest of quasi-Biblical proportions in Hugo”s novel. Necessarily streamlined for the stage, Valjean”s arc is further compressed in William Nicholson”s screenplay, the moral and historical spurs of his flip-flopping fortunes glossed over to a degree that favors musical economy over coherence – not much aided by the distracted performance of Hugh Jackman, an able musical performer of modest charisma and timbre.

Watching Jackman wrestle with his stunted character, I couldn”t help wondering how much more magnetism Russell Crowe might have lent this confused enterprise in the role a decade ago. Stuffed instead into the tight, bright-buttoned uniform of Valjean”s driven antagonist, Inspector Javert, Crowe”s a little less vocally adept than his fellow Antipodean, but more fragile and resourceful in dramatizing his numbers; a shame, then, that Javert is similarly ill-defined by the script, while Hooper”s isolating visual and structural architecture barely lets the two stars share a shot, much less build a dramatic rapport.

This problem is hardly restricted to the leads. From the Thénardiers” Dickensian comic relief to the damp fart of a new tune composed, with glaring lack of narrative purpose, for Valjean, musical sequence after musical sequence hangs in a vacuum, correlating scantly and amassing little atmospheric momentum between them. (Occasional shuffles in sequencing – such as the hellish hedonism of “Lovely Ladies” now segueing into the purgatorial despair of “I Dreamed a Dream,” rather than the reverse – seem equally random.)

The final effect is that of a commemorative revue rather than the fleshy, fully-felt pop-opera of the stage, its very occasional pleasures – the durable, propulsive bombast of its best songs, the unexpectedly lovely emotive tremor of an underserved Eddie Redmayne”s voice – as disconnected as its many missteps. Hooper was correct to opt against subtlety in translating this robust battering-ram of a musical to the screen, but there”s no grace or grandeur in his chosen vulgarity; in this ugly, unmoving “Les Misérables,” the Paris Uprising takes place on a single street corner, its dreams as yet unrealized.

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