Directed by Tom Hooper
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway
During the climax of “Les Miserables,” directed with stunning ineptitude by Tom Hooper, characters are shown wading, splashing and sputtering through pools of excrement. A break from my indignation, I smiled at what was as apt a visual representation as any of my experience with this film.
In the case of his Oscar-winning previous effort “The King’s Speech,” Hooper’s direction could be called boringly competent. Here, his work is haphazard and discordant. The constricting closeups, purposeless camera angles, and jarring cuts drain “Les Miserables” of any grace or glory. A subtle approach would be inappropriate, but this confused suffocation is equally so.
Like a bag of toxic trail mix, each scene and storyline of “Les Miserables” is thrown together without care or cohesion. As with its source material (a musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg based on a novel by Victor Hugo), the film’s through-line is the ostensibly redemptive tale of convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), but with that flimsily sketched arc comes a plethora of smaller stories, each as thoroughly mishandled as the next. Characters come and go at random and abrupt transitions lend the film a grating ADHD disguised as elaborateness.
Especially clumsy is the romance between Cosette (Amanda Seyfried)–taken in by Jean Valjean at her dying mother’s (Anne Hathaway) request–and Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young revolutionary and champion of the poor. Their “relationship” informs much of the musical’s second half, yet we are offered no reason to champion the characters beyond their fair skin and pretty faces. Marius’s nobility is verbally enforced but contradicted in action and Cosette is a sweet-faced nothing.
The vocal work is similarly lacking. Hooper rarely gives the bombastic musical numbers room to breathe and the film’s live-singing approach distracts in key moments. The cast is able enough vocally–the standout number being Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”–but Hooper’s oppressive directorial presence stifles this and other praiseworthy elements.
The acting here is obnoxious more often than not. I don’t share the bias many have against Hathaway, but her tics are rather annoying in this context and the less said about the background cast, particularly the child actors, the better. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen try and fail to add humor to the proceedings–their trademark mugging feels misplaced here. Crowe valiantly attempts understatement, but his muddled character arc renders his efforts bland rather than subtle.
“Les Miserables” is designed to make audiences emote and audible sobs from surrounding theater-goers suggest that it has found some success in this regard. For my part, however, Hooper’s cobbled-together ugliness inspired little beyond prolonged anger followed by a sweet relief as the closing credits rolled.