Les Misérables (2012), directed by Tom Hooper

I think I have to start off my review by saying this is the first time I have ever had any exposure to the musical or the story of Les Misérables. Well, aside from this version.

And I have to say, as a first time viewer, it looks like it must be one heck of a good musical. Of course, it’s hard to tell in this movie. Les Miz may be a great musical but this is not a great movie, and it”s frustrating because with only a few directorial decisions Hooper has managed to ruin the entire show.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but Les Miz seems to be a musical and a story of epic proportions. It’s a story of redemption, love and liberty set against the majesty of 19th century Paris.

But you get no sense of this thanks to the choke-hold Tom Hooper has managed to put on the story through his insistence on shooting nearly the entire movie in close-ups.

It’s a interesting gimmick and I get that he’s going for some sort of Passion of Joan of Arc, French, intense emotion, Carl Dreyer-type thing, and at times it works. But two and a half hours of close-ups is a hard thing to endure and it ultimately suffocates the grandeur of the story and the music in a way it never manages to overcome.

At certain points in the film I was desperate for an establishing shot, just something, anything, that would help me to situate the story and give it some spacial context. There is a scene where Javert is chasing Valjean through some MC Escher-like alleys and the audience can’t possibly have any idea what is going on because we are never shown how any of these settings are oriented. Even with the characters, I had trouble figuring out how they fit into the world around them because I’m too busy staring into the inside of the inside of the pores on their face (not a bad thing in the case of Hathaway).

It was an absolute relief and joy to see the one wide shot of Paris at the end of the film, something that would have been very handy to have at the beginning to allow us to feel where these characters are and understand the world they live in.

And in the ongoing problem of modern action movie directing corrupting everything, we now have a grand Hollywood musical that looks as though it was made by three high school students with camcorders.

Really, I’ve said it before about other directors, but somebody needs to buy Hooper a tripod, because the handheld look gets old and nauseating fast with Les Miz. It’s another part of Hooper’s quest for immediacy and intimacy, but I honestly feel it takes away from the power of the story, the acting and the music, because it leaves us constantly trying to get our bearings and figure out what we’re looking at.

The style of Les Miz seems like an experiment, a gimmick, and one that ultimately fails.

There are redeeming qualities to the film, found mainly in performances, especially Anne Hathaway, who can sing circles around the rest of the cast. Hugh Jackman is good, and Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen provide some mild comic relief in what is otherwise a drearily serious movie.

I think an unsung hero (excuse the pun) is Eddie Redmayne, best known to me for My Week With Marilyn. He is as good, if not better, than most anybody else in the film and I think if his star power were a little higher there would have been Oscar buzz surrounding him as well.

The only true dud is Russell Crowe, who I have a particular interest in and have written about before. It’s a miscasting more than anything, because Crowe does not have the charisma to pull off this character. I don’t think he shows a facial expression throughout the entire movie, and his voice is sub-par (a criticism I hate to make, because who the hell am I to talk?). I wanted ferocity and villainy from him, but he exudes boredom.

This is a long-standing tradition, but I think it’s funny that we still can’t bother to do foreign accents in movies set in foreign lands, and, even more so, that the English accent is still the stand-in accent for any nationality. Are you telling me that actors of the calibre of Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe can’t pull off a reasonable French accent? I mean, they’re putting on an American accent, so why not?

And while Hooper’s little cockney street urchins are charming, why were they in the streets of Paris? Are there no French children who speak English they could have hired? It’s a small point, and not one that overly bothered me, but just once it would be nice to see that effort taken. Hearing cockney on the streets of Paris just took me out of the world I was supposed to be enmeshed in.

Out of what I’ve seen so far this is the only real dud in the Best Picture category for the recently released Academy Award nominations. It’s not without its positives and parts are exceptionally engaging, but the whole event is ruined by Hooper’s direction. I admire it’s tenacity and for taking a chance in an industry where few chances are taken, but I’m sorry to say it didn’t pay off.

Les Misérables, the musical, could make for a great movie, but this is not it.

Les Misérables is in cinemas now.