Anne Hathaway is conspicuous in Les Misérables, a film that spans many stories, many years, and many musical numbers. Though she’s only on screen for some 20 minutes, Hathaway’s performance as Fantine—who begins the film in poverty and only slides further from there—stands out as the ideal effect of Tom Hooper’s decidedly cinematic techniques.
That Hooper thinks in cinematic terms is in itself remarkable. Following the grosses and awards racked up by the 2002 movie version of Chicago, many famous Broadway productions have made the transition to big-budget Hollywood productions and wound up stuck between the two: stagy, artificial mise en scène with music-video editing.
Hooper’s first innovation is live singing. Instead of prerecording songs before filming and then lip-syncing on set, actors in this movie are performing live (with an accompanist backing each via an earpiece), adding their own variations and intonations from take to take. To show off his cast’s tightrope walking, Hooper shoots many of the big solo numbers in just a handful of long takes. Essentially, he has absorbed a common complaint about recent onscreen dancing—an excess of editing that hides the dancers’ real work (or lack thereof)—and applied a correction to a musical that only has singing, no dancing.
It’s a bold idea, even if it doesn’t here produce a perfect synthesis of sound and visuals: Hooper’s long-take close-ups neutralize the effects of cutting that many film musicals have misused, but others, like Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, have incorporated into the music with great flair. Hooper focuses on his stars and their pipes. This means that sometimes the vocals must be shoved to the front of the mix to compensate for more nuanced work, and on some songs, the instrumentation behind the famous voices sounds like an afterthought.
But in many sequences, Hooper’s gambit pays off, and never so richly as with Hathaway’s big number, “I Dreamed a Dream.” After losing everything she holds dear, Fantine delivers a sad and, in Hathaway’s version, angry lament. Hooper’s camera stays fixed on the actor’s face for the entire song, and that face shows as much emotion as do her vocals, a lifetime of frustrations on painful, desperate display. It’s a bit like Jennifer Hudson’s big moment in Dreamgirls, but with acting to back up the vocal histrionics. Hathaway’s triumph looms over the rest of the movie, which understandably fails to top it.
But the show must go on. And much of it does achieve that scene’s energy, if not its power. Fantine loses everything hoping to protect her daughter Cosette (played as a child by Isabelle Allen and as a teenager by Amanda Seyfried). Fantine’s dedication moves her former employer and local mayor Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) to care for the child himself, a risky decision, as he has broken his draconian parole and is pursued by Officer Javert (Russell Crowe). This pursuit continues for years, even as the characters become entangled with revolution in 19th-century France.
Across time periods, Hooper draws from an effective if limited bag of cinematic tricks that will be recognizable to anyone who saw his last film, The King’s Speech, including distorted, fish-eyed images; wobbly but not shaky handheld close-ups; and dramatic push-ins. Though his Les Mis is more visually accomplished than many musicals of late, Hooper also preserves a theatrical sense of melodrama.
But even if many characters remain types rather than fully embodied individuals, the actors frequently infuse them with impressive life. Jackman is an empathetic presence and a strong singer, Crowe gives it his best shot with more rock-and-roll intonations, and the movie imports two of Sweeney Todd‘s supporting cast members (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen) for comic relief, who provide something of a showstopper with “Master of the House.”
With such scene thievery afoot, other actors leave empty-handed. Eddie Redmayne plays Marius, an object of affection for both Cosette and Eponine (Samantha Barks), and while his voice is probably more technically accomplished than most of his costars, in context, he sounds a bit like Michigan J. Frog of “One Froggy Evening.” Moreover, he has little chemistry with either Seyfried or Barks, and his unblinking stare seems like an odd motivation for Cosette and Eponine’s swooning.
For the swoon-ready, it probably helps to know and love the stage show. This is a faithful adaptation that converts the show to screen, rather than reimagining it from the floorboards up. Even if the movie’s most lasting contribution to the genre turns out to be the technical cleverness of its live singing, and even if it wins heaps of undeserved awards, it is at least a satisfying musical. Hooper’s Les Misérables is just broad enough to be fun and just moving enough to avoid that hollow, plastic feeling that sinks in during so many less competent displays of lavishness. It is, at last, an honest spectacle.