For an audience used to seeing “Les Miserables” on stage for the past 25-plus years, Tom Hooper’s direction and Danny Cohen’s cinematography may seem strange.
Their film adaption of the musical, based on the French historical novel by Victor Hugo, is about Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a French convict who served 19 years in jail over stealing a loaf of bread. After Valjean is released on parole, he is caught stealing silver from a bishop (Colm Wilkinson) who gave him shelter. Instead of accusing Valjean, the bishop says he gave Valjean the silver. Valjean repays the bishop’s kindness by trying to protect Fantine’s (Anne Hathaway) daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen, Amanda Seyfried) after her mother passes away. Meanwhile, his parole officer Javert (Russell Crowe) hunts Valjean for not returning from parole.
While the story of “Les Miserables” has already been adapted in book, stage, radio and film form, Hooper and Cohen’s film brings the musical closer than ever before. Cohen’s camera zooms into Jean Valjean’s face as he is singing. The camera is shaky, as if Cohen is shooting on monkey cam, with the camera slung over his shoulder, rather than on tripod.
Meanwhile, Jackman is breaking the fourth wall of the boxed proscenium stage, staring directly at the camera while backlit by the sky or the bright, ornate church décor. It’s a bold choice — and it’s unsettling to see an actor’s face blown up — with their eyes piercing into your soul — on the silver screen while they sing their soliloquy. But although Cohen consistently zooms into an actor’s face so they are staring at the camera and confronting the viewer, this filming technique is both a hit and a miss throughout different segments of the film.
The most effective use of this technique is when Hooper is telling Fantine’s story. The subjective camera captures Hathaway’s pain as she pleas for money for her daughter. The close-up shots show Hathaway’s vulnerability, nakedness and despair when she loses her job at the factory, her hair when she’s begging for money, and her virginity when she is raped as a prostitute. The closeness and immediacy of the camera enhances Hathaway’s performance.
Meanwhile, Hathaway’s high piercing voice conveys a range of emotion as she sings the renowned title song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” through a stream of tears. At times it’s frail as she whispers her words. At other times, her voice is laced with venom and rage for the overwhelming unfairness of her situation. From pleas and gasps to fire and anger, Hathaway’s performance changes how you hear “I Dreamed a Dream” — and for the first time, you begin to understand what the song really means.
The closeness of the camera also forces the viewer to confront filth and poverty. After all, how can you refuse poverty when they stare you in the face and beg you to listen? The film shows the fingers of the poor and homeless reaching out for you as the undercurrent of rebellion and the French Revolution boils. Meanwhile, Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) is singing, “Think you’re poor? Think you’re free? Follow me! Follow me!” Watching the French resistance of the 19th century, you can’t help but think of the residue of fire in the Occupy movement who crowded the parks of New York City just a year ago.
On the other end of the spectrum, Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen shine as the gaudy carpetbaggers, Mr. and Mrs. Thenardier, the greedy innkeepers who keep Cosette until her mother Fantine can settle her debt. Both Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen are known for their over-the-top roles with Bonham Carter playing slightly mad characters such as Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” and Bellatrix Lestrange in the “Harry Potter” films, and Baron Cohen playing absurd and comical characters such as Borat and Bruno. Although both actors may be typecast as the Thenardiers, the two work well together. While Bonham Carter is making out with guests in their number “Master of the House,” Baron Cohen is patting down guests while pick-pocketing them. Combined with lunacy and ridiculousness, the two are perfect for the role.
Yet while the Thenardiers are supposed to be ridiculous and over-the-top, the camera work and editing is ridiculous, making the audience very aware that this is a film and not a play. Even though the actors may hear the orchestra in their ears while singing live during each take, the dizzying aerial shots and the extreme close ups of the actors sometimes overshadow the actors’ talent. Eddie Redmayne, who plays Marius, Cosette’s love interest, appears as a lovesick Romeo whose talent is being pretty for a majority of the film. However, after Marius is wounded and Redmayne is singing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” Redmayne releases more genuine waterworks. For such a morose scene, it would be fitting to tell the story with longer and slower shots. However, the nice profile shot of Redmayne is quickly replaced by a shot of Redmayne crying at the camera, staring directly at you. Then you see a shot of Redmayne singing in an empty room with empty chairs and empty tables. While Redmayne is bearing his heart and mourning the death of his friends, the editing makes Redmayne’s distress look cheap rather than subtle. Instead you are bludgeoned with multiple shots and camera angles that seem too intrusive on his pain, when all you want to see is Redmayne’s still profile as he is quietly mourning. The scene seems even cheaper and even more out of place when Amanda Seyfried suddenly appears and the two get married. The drastic shift between sadness and happiness causes vertigo, just as the shaky camera movements and badly framed shots showing actors with their foreheads cut off, bring you out of the story.
But in the end, the camera work doesn’t matter. You may be upset about why Jackman is back lit as he is pacing or how Cosette’s appearance seems to stifle Redmayne’s grief, but in the end, you can’t help being swept away by the music, which washes over you like a familiar wave. You can’t help but feel the solidarity as all the actors return to sing, “Do You Hear the People Sing.” You only wish the actors would run and return on the stage to sing an encore.
After all, isn’t the music all that matters? The Broadway musical hasn’t been translated into 21 languages and played more than 47,000 times to audiences of more than 60 million people worldwide for nothing.