An Appreciation of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables Part 1: A Masterpiece of Visual Storytelling

It doesn’t say much for my confidence that I feel compelled to start off my first non-introductory blog post with a disclaimer. But during the past year and a bit into the current one, there have been far too many attempts by my frustrated fellow citizens to violently overthrow the government and take over cities. And here I am writing a series of posts praising Les Misérables, the 2012 movie adaptation of the beloved stage musical, itself an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, which portrays such an insurrection in a very positive, idealized way. Let me state that I don’t condone any of these attempts, either rightwing or leftwing, and if that were all that Les Mis were about, I wouldn’t be writing about it. As it is, the doomed revolution is one plot thread among many and however cynical I am about Victor Hugo’s ridiculously idealized view of it [1]It’s not much of a defense, but I will say that the original novel is a little more nuanced in its depiction of the insurrection than the musical is. Victor Hugo was at least willing to … Continue reading, I know it’s possible to enjoy his story without agreeing with all of his philosophy, since I have many, many times.

The reason I’m writing this series despite its need for a disclaimer is that it’s a you-love-it-or-you-hate-it movie [2]On the internet anyway. People I know personally seem to like it fine and I love it, but I feel like hating it has lately become the accepted norm. [3]That’s probably because director, Tom Hooper, recently directed a movie musical that was a notorious critical and financial bomb, one that was a punchline almost before its release, and people … Continue reading You don’t have to look far on YouTube to find video essayists badmouthing it. (Lindsey Ellis. Patrick H. Willems. Sideways.) The movie’s been raked over the coals by disappointed theater fans, musical-averse movie fans and lovers of both genres who dislike the combination. I’m not going to do a point-by-point rebuttal of any of the YouTubers I’ve mentioned, hence the title An Appreciation of Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables rather than A Defense of Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables, for a simple reason. I feel like a lot of their specific points are too subjective to really rebut. They’ll show a clip that supposedly demonstrates what’s wrong with the movie, explain exactly what’s wrong with it, and I, the viewer, can only say, “what was wrong with that clip? It was beautiful!” They’re never going to convince me of their point of view and I’m never going to convince them of mine. But they have a right to their opinions and I have a right to mine. [4]To really balance out the suffocating anti-Tom Hooper sentiment, which I confess is what I’d really like to do, I’d have to make a video essay of my own and post it on YouTube. As it is, … Continue reading

But I will address the two “classic” criticisms of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables, which is not the same thing as addressing specific critics. One of them is that Hooper’s…very particular style of cinematography is distracting and annoying. (Harsher critics have called it lazy and claustrophobic.) The movie is jampacked with closeups of character’s faces, off center as often as not. And since much of the movie consists of dramatic musical solos, these shots tend to go on for a long time. If you share the opinion of Calvin’s Dad, this movie is not going to be for you. Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson for November 09, 1995 – GoComics

I’ll admit that while I greatly enjoyed my first viewing, I tended to agree with the naysayers. There were so many cool sets and locations in the movie. Why not have the camera show them off more rather than have it be so often smushed against someone’s face for so long? But the more I re-watched the film, the more I agreed with what Hooper does in it. Les Misérables isn’t about cool sets and locations. It’s also full of exciting action scenes, which is why people keep adapting it for the screen despite its unwieldly length and structure, but those aren’t what it’s about either. It’s about the characters. Their psychology, development and inner conflict are what make it such a great story. [5]Victor Hugo may have thought his book was about France and the progress of humanity. But I’d say it became a classic in spite of its focus on those things, not because of it. Their psychology and inner conflict are what make Les Miserables so great. That’s part of the reason the musical is the most popular adaptation of the book. Its songs allow us direct access to the thoughts of the characters. By focusing the camera on the actors’ faces so much, Tom Hooper never lets us lose track of what’s important to the story. That’s why while I’ll concede that the movie’s cinematography can be claustrophobic, I’ll never let it be maintained that it’s lazy. Practically every shot moves the story forward or tells us something about the characters and their world.

OK, I have no idea what the point of this random shot of a stray cow during the barricade building scene is. I said practically every shot.

The subject of the characters and the many closeups of their faces, of course, brings up the other “classic criticism” of this movie. The casting/singing. Most of the main actors (Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, etc.) are movie stars with marquee value names rather than renowned vocalists. Veterans of the stage show are in the cast but mostly confined to supporting roles and cameos. You can definitely hear the difference when they sing though. Even I’ll admit that. Many viewers find the below-Broadway-caliber vocals and talky performance style hard on the ears. This is one of those criticisms that I can neither rebut nor agree with because…well, I just can’t relate to it somehow. Maybe it’s because I’ve never believed, even before the film was cast, that it would outdo the filmed 10th anniversary concert, which was my introduction to the musical, in that area. No production has ever eclipsed that cast vocally, [6]Well, OK, I’ll admit I find Judy Kuhn’s Cosette annoying except in her last scene. She’s the only major weak spot. including the later concert versions. [7]It drives me crazy when people hold up the 25th anniversary concert as superior to the movie when the 10 anniversary one exists! And whenever I watch the movie, I’m not thinking about singing. I’m thinking about storytelling, which the often breathy, unpolished sounding singing serves. To me, it just fits the tone which the movie is going for. [8]I’d argue that it’s trying to show what a world in which everyone sang all the time instead of talked would really be like, with not everyone being an amazing singer. But the consistent … Continue reading

I can certainly see the value of casting actors who aren’t big names. It makes it easier to forget about the performer and just focus on the character. But sometimes movie stars are stars for a reason and when called upon to have constant dramatic closeups of their faces throughout this movie, these stars were more than up for the challenge. There’s so much passion put into their roles and they manage to convey so many powerful emotions…

Anguish

Rage

Terror

Relief

Stoic acceptance

Grim determination

Empathy

And on rare but heartwarming occasions, joy.

I have to give a particular shoutout to Isabelle Allen who plays young Cosette. Despite her youth at the time of filming, she more than holds her own against Anne Hathaway’s Oscar nominated turn as her character’s tragic mother. In her short time on screen, she manages to perfectly convey Victor Hugo’s characterization. [9]OK, so she’s far too cute and healthy looking but apart from that.

She “mourns with the air of an old woman”

but is still capable of childlike delight.

She’s humanly envious of children who are better off than she is.

She’s terrified of her abusers

but has the guts to defy them once in a while.

And she instinctively trusts her mysterious rescuer, Jean Valjean. (Hugh Jackman)

The most frequently criticized/mocked performance in the movie is that of Russell Crowe. I can’t say his Javert has ruined the role for me the way Allen has ruined young Cosette. It’s true that he has the most limited range, both vocally and as far as facial expressions go.

And he’s clearly less comfortable acting while singing than his costars are, seldom, if ever, varying his delivery. Yet he works for me somehow. His lack of expressiveness fits his character’s initial singlemindedness and refusal to reconsider his philosophy. It also has the effect of differentiating him from the other characters, making him subtly creepy. [10]And unlike the other main actors, much as I love them in their roles, he actually looks kind of looks like his character in the book.

Crowe and Jackman each have one big solo that was clearly written for a singer with a wider range than either has. And each gives you a good idea of the actor’s vocal performance. Crowe “undersings” Stars, relying on the music’s inherent beauty and not even trying to reach the extended high notes of someone like Philip Quast, who played Javert in the 10th anniversary concert. Jackman goes for broke with Bring Him Home and falls short [11]Frankly, I don’t know how anyone can sing that song but gives the song a ragged, desperate emotion that makes the failure forgivable. [12]Of course, he has the advantage that Bring Him Home comes late in the story when we’re already invested in his character.

But enough about singing and acting. I want to get back to that cinematography. Because while the constant extended closeups may be wearying, whenever the camera pulls back to give us a good look at those cool sets and locations, the movie makes the most of it.

The movie has a great sense of scale and height. I love the way Javert, the tragic antagonist, begins the movie on high and at the climax undergoes a fall. I love all the movie’s visual symbolism. (The opening of image of a tattered French flag. The crucifixes that pop in the background during scenes of Valjean. The butterfly that appears in the foreground during the big romantic scene.) And I love the art direction, which is somehow both muted and colorful, creating a world that is both gritty and poetic-much like Victor Hugo’s prose in fact! I’ve heard it said of certain movies that you could pause them at any point and find a beautiful image. I hesitate to use the word, beautiful, given Les Misérables’ unsavory subject matter, but I feel you could probably pause it at any moment and get a powerful, arresting image.

In fact, if I were to sum up the movie in one word, it would powerful. A powerful story, courtesy of Victor Hugo, powerful music by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Herbert Kretzmer, powerful visuals thanks to Tom Hooper, Danny Cohen, the director of cinematography and Eve Stewart, the production designer, and powerful performances from a great ensemble cast. It’s not a movie for everyone, but movies don’t become my favorites because they’re for everyone. They do so because they’re for me. And I’m so enamored of this one that after this long blog post, I’m still not done writing about it.

References

References
1 It’s not much of a defense, but I will say that the original novel is a little more nuanced in its depiction of the insurrection than the musical is. Victor Hugo was at least willing to acknowledge the evils that such conflicts entail, mainly the loss of life and damage to property of innocent bystanders. And the 2012 movie portrays the commanding officer of the soldiers who kill the noble rebels as tearfully regretful rather than sadistic or callous, which isn’t very true to the spirit of Hugo but works well dramatically, I feel.
2 On the internet anyway. People I know personally seem to like it fine
3 That’s probably because director, Tom Hooper, recently directed a movie musical that was a notorious critical and financial bomb, one that was a punchline almost before its release, and people now feel smugly justified for disliking his first stab at the genre. I haven’t seen that movie but I’ll say in Hooper’s defense that, given the source material, it was always going to be ridiculously bad. But his ambition seems to have made it as fascinating in its wrongness as possible in an age when critics complain about the generic badness of Hollywood. He deserves credit for that much.
4 To really balance out the suffocating anti-Tom Hooper sentiment, which I confess is what I’d really like to do, I’d have to make a video essay of my own and post it on YouTube. As it is, my “opponents” have unfair advantages over me. They can use sounds and moving images to manipulate people, as well as words and still images which are all I have. And more people will get their videos recommended to them on YouTube than will ever stumble across my blog. But making video essays is not my forte. Writing is. Were I to try to “beat” those YouTubers on their own ground, my annoying voice would drive more people away than my points would win over.
5 Victor Hugo may have thought his book was about France and the progress of humanity. But I’d say it became a classic in spite of its focus on those things, not because of it.
6 Well, OK, I’ll admit I find Judy Kuhn’s Cosette annoying except in her last scene. She’s the only major weak spot.
7 It drives me crazy when people hold up the 25th anniversary concert as superior to the movie when the 10 anniversary one exists!
8 I’d argue that it’s trying to show what a world in which everyone sang all the time instead of talked would really be like, with not everyone being an amazing singer. But the consistent physical attractiveness of the cast makes this argument hard to make.
9 OK, so she’s far too cute and healthy looking but apart from that.
10 And unlike the other main actors, much as I love them in their roles, he actually looks kind of looks like his character in the book.
11 Frankly, I don’t know how anyone can sing that song
12 Of course, he has the advantage that Bring Him Home comes late in the story when we’re already invested in his character.
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