Once in a while there comes a movie that automatically deserves the tag of Epic. Tom Hooper’s monumental, grandstanding adaptation of Les Misérables does that and even more: it earns the second word of the phrase so popular by Twitter: it is definitively (and, in every sense, literally) what is called Epic Fail.
Look, I love musicals. Love ‘em to bits. I have an obvious (if shameful) bias toward clever lyric, and when it skilfully drives narrative and replaces dialogue, the result is joyful. Hollywood might not exactly be serving us opera, but the pizza-pie version it offers up has its own distinct pleasures — even the excessive cheese merely adds to it all.
There is much to commend about Tom Hooper’s effort: the actors strain their sinews and furrow brows furiously as they sing their own bits; the director keeps amplifying up the emotion as he zooms relentlessly into their faces; and there is an undeniable sincerity to the film, an earnest desire to powerfully adapt Victor Hugo’s weighty novel.
And yet an ambitious film can also be a bad film, and this is more of the latter than the former. Or does that sound mild? It shouldn’t. This is a monstrosity of a film, a pompous and bloated farce that uneasily straddles the line between spoof and drama, serving only to make us aware of the gargantuan acting efforts. It is also sadistically long, a hundred and sixty minutes of mostly unbearable cinema.
One of the primary reasons is that they don’t stop singing. A screen musical (as opposed to one on stage, which casts genuinely incredible singers, not A-list actors who can also sing) can be crammed with songs, sure, but they must be matched with lyrical highs. Characters should sing to express the dramatic, the romantic or the humorous. Here, every line is sung, and thus the music never lets up. Characters doggedly wail and moan every bit of banality, and while it is an approach that may sound good on paper, it translates horridly on screen: when Russell Crowe looks at Hugh Jackman and sings his prisoner number, warbling “24601”, all seriousness invariably vanishes and he might as well be singing 867530 nie-e-ine.
The cast, as said, does a lot. Jackman, playing protagonist Jean Valjean, turns in a mammoth performance and sings with startling intensity: often, as he strains to hit a high note, it looks like his head may explode. He hits said note and we must duly applaud, though our care is for the actor and not the character. The words never stop sounding hokey — except when Anne Hathaway gets to them. Her Fantine is heartbreakingly good, and for short stretches, she lifts the film. Propelling her lips forward like a duck in a Disney cartoon, the actress makes her anguish credible. Plucked yet plucky, she’s the only one who really does.
Crowe, who is overwhelmingly sincere as Vajean-chasing policeman Javert, sings flatly and, it must be said, rather weakly. Even his finale, which is one of the highlights of the musical, emerges half-baked. Stuffy and unsure of himself, Crowe might as well be singing Leggy Blonde.
Visually, there are times when Hooper allows cinematographer Danny Cohen to show off the grandiose scale and the painstakingly recreated world of early-19th century France, but that’s only when he isn’t zooming right onto his actor’s faces. On a large screen, faces aren’t meant to be seen this big, and it feels rather like an assault. There are a couple of ingeniously shot sequences — the street of the prostitutes, and a moment when snow appears almost to be floating upward, like in a snowglobe — but mostly there’s just faces, contorted with their commitment to shriek adequately well.
As the dramatic stakes rise, there is enough meat in the plot for it to start to matter, for the film to feel like more than a farce. Revolution is in the air, and a little kid who looks like an infant Jon Bon Jovi sings rousingly of equality as the French flag emphatically gains importance. That, however, is Hugo’s glory and not Hooper’s. You can’t not care about the end of Les Misérables. You care despite the director’s single-minded hacky treatment of the source material.
It’s an incredibly tall order, making a musical from something as tragic. Ironically, one of the few times this film achieves buoyancy is when two castmembers from just such a project — Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen — finesse their parts as they sing George Costanza’s favourite Les Miz song, Master Of The House. They’ve done it before, you see. With the masterful Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. But Hooper ain’t Tim Burton.
Off with his head, I say.
Rating: 1.5 stars
First published Rediff, January 18, 2013