Les Miserables: Tom Hooper’s Oscar Friendly Musical Travesty, Struggling to Achieve Art

Longtime fans of the book, stage play, and musical “Les Misérables” finally get their screen version with a mishmashy, Oscar-friendly adaptation of the thirty-year-old pop opera, based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel.

Directed by Oscar-winner Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”), every line of dialogue in this movie is sung, which signals that this fare isn’t going to be for everyone. But those who do love the stage production are likely to like the movie. Many more others will be bored, and looking at their watches.

Likely to divide critics, “Les Miserables”” is a middle-brow fare (to say the least), a musical hovering between theater and cinema, politics and art, but not entirely successful in any of these areas.

Hugh Jackman is one of the main reasons to see the movie—-he gives a startling, naked performance as the hero, Jean Valjean, a man who suffers his entire life for one small crime of his youth: stealing bread. This leads first to nineteen years of imprisonment, then to another couple of decades on the run from the Darth Vader-esque police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe, mostly standing and watching).

This film is most alive whenever Jackman and Crowe share the screen, feeding off each other’s intensity. There’s a certain joyousness to the drama whenever they’re in charge that’s often lacking elsewhere in this somber, moody historical epic.

The screenplay, credited to William Nicholson (“Shadowlands”) and Herbert Kretzmer, does little to explain why Valjean and Javert ever became so obsessed with each other, their entire lives becoming defined by this single adversarial relationship. As this should be the key to the entire story, the fact that it’s not locked down causes problems for the rest of the project.

Many other plot points are lost in this “Misérables,” which assumes that viewers already know the story. Indeed, there have been several screen versios of Hugo’s novel, both American and French, including a famous 1935 rendition, which was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar and starred Fredric March as Jean Valjean.

But audience members of the younger generation who are uninitiated may find themselves scratching their heads at times—and perhaps pining for the decidedly more workmanlike (and nonmusical) 1998 version that starred Liam Neeson, which although reductionist was much easier to follow.

(A prime example: Valjean’s motivation for eventual self-exile to a convent comes out of nowhere in Hooper’s film. It doesn’t make much sense as presented, thus weakening the film’s final moments.)

Valjean, fresh out of prison and breaking his parole, assumes a new identity and establishes himself as a successful factory owner. One of his factory workers is the angelic yet unfortunate Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who soon falls into a life of prostitution. Driven by guilt—he failed to protect her at a crucial moment—Valjean promises to raise Fantine’s daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), upon the mother’s early death (cause of death unexplained).

Hathaway has the film’s biggest number, “I Dreamed a Dream,” which comes fairly early on. Hooper captures the song in an impressive single shot that will likely win Hathaway (who then basically exits the film) any number of awards.

Much later, as the Paris Uprising gets going, Valjean and Cosette, now settled in the city, find themselves smack dab in the middle of everything. Cosette falls in love with one of the young rebels, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), while Valjean and Javer face off one final time with bullets flying around them.

Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen come up with some memorable fancy shots (most of them involving questionable CGI), but for the most part their strategy’s to rely on close-ups and minimized cutting to make the epic feel intimate.

For the first part of the film, this seems rather bold. But after several of these longish close-ups—with the main characters again and again letting a tear or two go just as they hit that high note—it feels like Hooper and Cohen have run out of ideas.

And as the film moves along, the bigger numbers start to slow the narrative drive. The story progresses only in fits and starts, each song putting the brakes on the action.

There are plenty of powerful moments in “Les Misérables,” but as a whole the film gets itself stuck going around in circles. The opening and closing chapters are rousing, but there’s a long stretch in the middle that stumbles and stumbles.

Hooper doesn’t find a central theme among the material’s many themes on which to build the rest of the film. Audiences may rightly be left wondering, “What was that really all about?” When Valjean sings at the end that to “love another person is to see the face of God”—as if it’s a summing up of things—it’s a bit disconcerting: the sentiment just doesn’t match all that’s come before.

This “Misérables” isn’t a love story—none of the characters outside Valjean are developed enough for that—or a story of faith.  It’s simply about the music itself, the world-famous melodies of Claude-Michel Schönberg, sung by starry Hollywood cast, struggling but seldom succeeding in imbuing the songs with genuine verve or gravitas.

That may be enough for a lot of people, but more substantial storytelling to accompany the music would have made this movie–real travesty–into a reel and real event.