“Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of angry men?”
This refrain has attracted millions upon millions to see the musical inspired by Victor Hugo’s exquisite work Les Misérables. Theatre goers who witness spectacles on both the stage and the silver screen have waited ages to see a film echo this same rallying cry. Did Tom Hooper’s directing draw the audience into the ranks of the Children of the Barricade? Well, to quote the musical once more, Hooper’s Les Misérables could have used “one day more” and a few adjustments to make it just right.
The main problem with this interpretation of Les Misérables is that it’s grandest elements are shrank down at the wrong times. I commend the bold move to have the actors sing live but with that comes more careful directing. Rather than allow voices to soar, we get a Fantine (Anne Hathaway) whose song is swallowed by sobs and trembles. Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” is indeed sweet to hear but right as you start to sway in it, the trance is broken with each gush of tears and super close-up of her face. The “shrinking” effect continues with Hugh Jackman using his non-Broadway voice when portraying Jean Valjean. I understand the desire for intimacy in a movie rendition but I wouldn’t mind granting Jackman a moment or two to let his vocal chords do some heavy lifting and letting the man get physical with it. Ironically Russell Crowe puts a bit more lungs into his Javert but Crowe — just like Jackman — goes for a subdued performance as opposed to a passionate one.
Thankfully, the film is not totally bogged down by the musical missteps. Hooper’s Les Misérables really manages to visually capture the struggles of the poor and the revolutionaries in 19th century France. Seeing the multitudes of the slums literally wrap around the carriages of the rich was a powerful sight to behold. This pays off in spades when Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) and his band of freedom fighters set up the barricade to make a grand stand against the French army. Some may say presenting the image of a small group of students taking on a giant battalion of soldiers causes the act to appear like stupidity and suicide. Phooey! I prefer this realistic depiction of the sacrifices made in revolution over the theatrical production which shows the defenders firing potshots and climbing up and down the barricade.
The costume choices are indeed worth noting as well. I appreciated how despite class or station, every character had a layer of realistic grit or shabbiness to their attire. I always was bothered how the musical would show these suffering souls in bright and pompous shades when in reality the pollution in the streets would have grimed any color in seconds flat. The “Lovely Ladies” are little more than desperate women wearing rags and sloppily put on rouge. Even those who were better off wore humble black suits with hardly a bling-bling to brag about. I got a hoot out of seeing Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen) trying to pass off his garments as that of an respectable aristocrat when they were nothing more than the findings of a sewer traipsing innkeeper.
Unfortunately, even with the positives mentioned above, this interpretation of Les Misérables just doesn’t cut the mustard. Sure in many ways it honors the spirit of the musical and even gives the book some clever nods but it just didn’t leave me breathless like the Broadway show does. The best way to describe the quality of execution of this Les Mis would be to compare it between two different kinds of social activists. There’s one man you see on TV leading a group of protesters with a glorious banner in hand and song in his heart and then there’s another man who you listened to chatting about social change on the Student Union couches. Both are no doubt interesting to watch, it’s just that the first guy has a bit more oomph to him than the other.