What have I done? Sweet Jesus, what have I done? I rubbed circles into my temples during the entire prolonged death sequence closing out Les Miserables, asking myself that very questionwhile family members sniffled quietly around me. While they were suffering, while the theater seemed so very moved by the action on screen, all I could think was: how long are they going to drag this moment out? Would this character really just be waiting, parked in a chair? Why does Anne Hathaway's ghost appear with her martyred hair? I was in pain, yes, but it was a pain more akin to that of an extended, small, itchy irritation than deep emotional resonance. When the film reached its finale, it was clear everyone else in my family had been deeply affected by the tragic events on screen, and honestly? I was shocked by their response. Despite the "like" rating, I didn't really like this adaptation of Les Mis, I just couldn't get into it. It was a muddled, whiny, dour, discordant cesspool of despair, and when I said this you would have thought I'd jumped onto the screen and strangled all of the beloved characters with my own two hands, the reaction I got was so sharp. I've been accused of not having a heart or soul since my admission of disinterest, an accusation I bristled at but which I have heard is par for the course between the sparring parties of this surprisingly divisive film, and the emotional responses to such minor, superficial characterization are utterly beyond my comprehension. So I ask: have I fallen so far? Is the hour too late? That nothing remains but the cry of my hate?
That's a joke, of course. A reference to the sung soliloquy delivered by Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) early on in the story, but the over-dramatic nature of the question in context seems wholly appropriate when conducting an appraisal of one of the most melodramatic pieces of filmmaking in recent memory. The film is adolescent in its histrionics, focusing entirely on constant persecution with nary a glimmer of anything that wouldn't be perfectly at home in a teenager's scrawled diary. Even the most French-illiterate of Americans should be able to judge based on title alone that there's little happiness to be found in a world so rife with misery. The musical is of course based on Victor Hugo's lengthy masterpiece (both of which have been presented in translation), and if you weren't subjected to the novel in your high school studies (I was, and enjoyed it), I'd recommend you visit the text instead of any film version. That's not to say that this is a "the book was better" situation of lit snobbery (though, I mean, it is), but more to caution that the film/musical feels like a jerky, grabby, exploitative emotional pornography compared to the subtler nuances of its source material. What began as a legitimately moving study of humanity has been diluted in the extreme. Vital pieces are missing. History, for example, is discarded in favor of unclear, generalized revolution. Everyone's fighting, but no one bothers to ask what the hell they're fighting for, and instead of closing gaps or deepening the connections between the disparate miserable characters in question, we have strange and immediate declarations of love, loyalty, undying affection, and trust all via song. Considering the length of the novel and the nature of the musical genre, holes were bound to appear, yes. And I'll admit that I was never interested in the stage musical and have not seen the Broadway production, so I didn't know just how dire the situation would be, but I still sense the stage may offer a wider vista and more fitting solitude for these declarations than the innumerable extreme close-ups of wrenched, pained, tear-stained faces director Tom Hooper subjects the viewer to here. Hooper makes his camera God, and the actors are always focused on God. Addressing God with wide open mouths and trying to sear past the god of the lens into the hearts of the audience. Too bad they forgot about the minds...
My primary problem with Les Mis, though, came in the form of the music. The score has been translated, and that's bound to cause an issue or two, but it was immediately noticeable - and quite distracting - to me that the operatic qualities of this particular brand of musical forced its characters to constantly resort to telling over showing. They speak sparsely, and information is received primarily through text or belted announcement, secondarily in depictions of suffering and quivering mouths. Les Mis is, simply put, the most difficult variety of musical for me to accept willingly: the sung-through. While I am a lover of the musical genre in general, I find that (with the exception of true opera, an animal I interpret differently) it's much harder to accept a world where the characters constantly sing the most mundane of lines over a world where the characters resort to singing in moments of joy, pain, anger, and self-reflection. A few sung-throughs manage to break through. Ican buy into Evita and Sweeney Todd, for example, perhaps because the delusions of grandeur of those characters allows for an operatic, dramatized read of their entire lives. The style remains in close association with one or two characters in those films and the singing serves as a direct window into their psyches: it makes a certain amount of sense. Les Miserables, however, is an epic tale and one that only appears operatic. While Jean Valjean serves as its emotional center, when we veer from him there are too many pieces to put together, too much subtext left to sing-song exposition. The story is a tapestry, Valjean is the thread, a tragic hero in reverse. He's the ex-con struggling to make good, the man we meet during his lowest low and who goes on to become a 'great' man all while being ruthlessly hunted by the merciless, dangerous Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe).
There are sections that work quite well, and it should be noted that while it's clouded by dirt, grime, and squalor, the film is a beautifully shot, generally well cast affair that generally lives up to all its promises of spectacle. Hugh Jackman holds up his end of the bargain and makes for a sympathetic Valjean, though I admit I found his vocals strained, high, and often overwrought. He doesn't sing, necessarily, but is engaged in a constant, oddly breathy death rattle. As Fantine, the much celebrated Anne Hathaway (who cried watching her own performance) ugly cries her way through a wrenching, shaky, appropriately devastated "I Dreamed a Dream," and for a second I bought into the sadness, though I wondered at whether or not it was deserved. My favorite part, admittedly, was the glimmer of comic relief delivered by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the deliciously despicable Thenardier and Madame Thenardier, aka: the part everyone seems content to ignore. During their "Master of the House" run about Hooper suddenly - and perhaps inappropriately- channels Tim Burton and gives us a weird, wacky, divinely over-the-top slice that seems a lost chapter from Sweeney Todd when contrasted with the murky seriousness of its surroundings. While I loved "Master of the House," it possessed tendencies so obviously choreographed that it felt out of place in Les Mis, rather like a kitschy burlesque act dropped into Apocalypse Now. Yet, Cohen and Carter announce their presence cheekily, twisting their sung dialogue so that they explain and illustrate in a way that's comically deft and sure to be under-appreciated next to Hathaway and Jackman. Though the Thenardiers are anything but, they seemed oddly natural while the other characters were always delivering a "HELLO, MY NAME IS SO AND SO, THIS IS MY PLIGHT. LOOK HERE, I LOVE YOU. LIFE IS VERY TERRIBLE, PLEASE LET ME TELL YOU EVERYTHING." No, seriously.
I realize that may be a vocalization of my own problem with the musical itself over its film adaptation. While the innumerable fans of the show will likely find a way to send me to the guillotine, I need to say it: the lyrics are terrible, the instrumentals are weak, and the whole thing relies too heavily on a constant repetition of events and sentiments. Indeed, I don't think I'll be buying tickets to a live performance anytime soon. The expository quality of the lyrics is thoroughly distracting for anyone raised on more melodic, harmonious musicals (or even rock operas), especially whenever Russell Crowe entered a scene. Crowe's Javert was tepid at best, a man who came off more as a priggish, silly asshole than a viper, and that, I think, is relatively problematic. He's always staring off into the distance, standing around with his chest puffed out, and rasping through his vocals. If this were Mamma Mia! he'd be the Pierce Brosnan without the sense of humor, and I could forgive that if I could just buy into the rest of the film instead of feeling like it was trying so hard, doing everything in its power to add weight, to yank and tangle one's heartstrings without really laying the groundwork for the suffering it forces its characters through. We see the pain, we see the emotion manifest on the faces of Fantine, Valjean, and Eponine (Samantha Barks), but the film seems to want us to feel, to become closer to the characters, to experience based on the length of the shot over the story. It forces emotion and uses emotions as subjects instead of letting us interpret emotions to make our own decisions. Chests heave, jaws quake, and yeah, we must admire the ability of all of these actors to produce such tears...but, is that enough? It wasn't for me, and while I give the film extra points for effort and showmanship, when I flipped open my copy of the book I serendipitously stumbled upon a passage I'd underlined at age 15 that seems to kind of apply to the act of watching Les Mis: "Martyrdom is a sublimation, a corrosive sublimation. It is a torture of consecration. You consent to it the first hour...but you have yet to put on the mantle of flame, and is there no moment when the wretched flesh revolts, and when you abdicate the torture?" Valjean may have entered the calmness of despair, so did many a weeping theatergoer, but my wretched flesh wanted to abdicate the hell out of that torture.