An Appreciation of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables Part 2: The Part That’s Not Actually Appreciative

It may seem strange that I’m going to devote a whole blogpost to what I consider the shortcomings of Les Misérables (2012), especially when I claimed to be tired of the negativity I sensed towards it on the internet. But I feel that, after all my gushing in the latter half of my last post, I’d come across as a mindless fanboy if I didn’t grant that the movie has imperfections. To coddle it and act like no one can say anything bad about it would be to condescend to it, acting like it can’t stand up to any serious critical scrutiny. I believe it can. So here are what I consider the movie’s flaws. (Most of them are more like missed opportunities actually.)

The Cinematography Some of the Time

I admit it. Some of Tom Hooper’s stylizations don’t really make sense to me. I don’t get the point of the recurring off-center camera angles. Maybe the thought behind it is to make the constant closeups of the characters’ faces less potentially tiresome by having those faces be a little to the right or to the left. [1]If Hooper has ever explained them on a commentary for one of his other works, I’d be interested in hearing what he had to say. I find it’s just confusing visually. You keep wondering what you’re supposed to be looking at over the characters’ shoulders. And it’s really annoying when it pops up during what is otherwise one of the musical’s most powerful moments, Fantine’s song, I Dreamed a Dream. [2]Anne Hathaway knocks that scene out of the park! Her performance in this movie is awesome in general. I didn’t want to write about it too much in my original post because she and Hugh Jackman … Continue reading These camera angles certainly don’t ruin the movie for me but I don’t really have a defense for them either.

Helena Bonham Carter to an Extent

I hate to say this because I really enjoy Carter’s performance as Madame Thenardier. She’s a whole lot of fun to watch and brings great facial expressions and comedic timing to her every scene. But her early scenes with young Cosette lose a little because she’s not the physical type for the role. In the literary Les Misérables, Victor Hugo describes the “Thenardiess” as being incredibly muscular and intimidating. I don’t mind that Carter doesn’t match this description for most of the movie. And we can all understand that a normal sized adult is intimidating to a little child. But the bits where Cosette is bullied by Madame Thenardier would be more powerful if we could empathize with her, not just understand her fear in a theoretical way. The visual contrast between the puny Monsieur Thenardier and his brawny wife would also add to their comedy. [3]While we’re on the subject of the Thenardiers, I suppose I should also mention I’m not a fan of the bawdy comedy of the Master of the House scene. But that comes from the stage version … Continue reading

Stars (No, This Isn’t About Russell Crowe)

In his big solo, Stars, Javert describes the stars in the night sky as an example of the order he sees in the universe. This vital character moment is one of the few times in the musical that Javert explains his personal philosophy in a way that makes it sound remotely appealing. Later, during Javert’s Suicide, he describes the stars as being “black and cold.” The visual contrast between a starry night sky when Javert is confident in his beliefs and a cloudy night sky when his faith is shattered could have been great. It…really isn’t. This is a rare missed opportunity for visual symbolism/storytelling for this movie and the only instance when I feel it would have benefited from a less exclusive focus on the soloists’ faces.

Samantha Barks (Kind Of)

I feel really bad about criticizing Samantha Barks’ portrayal of Eponine. For one thing, she’s one of the few stage actors who gets to reprise their Les Misérables role in this movie [4]There are plenty of other veterans of the stage play in the cast-Colm Wilkinson, Fraces Ruffelle, Hadley Fraser-but none of them recreating their onstage role. and I don’t want to alienate Broadway fans anymore than I have to do so, especially since she manages the impressive vocal act of sounding better to traditional ears than many of her Hollywood costars do while never sounding like she belongs in a completely different movie. For another thing, her performance is really moving and I don’t have the heart to say I dislike it per se. But Barks’ take on the character feels a little off to me. Eponine is supposed to be a cynical, hardened young woman who comes from a dysfunctional family and has been living on the wrong side of the law for quite some time when we meet her as an adult. An actress playing her definitely needs to be emotional and vulnerable during her soliloquies about her unrequited love, but she should come across as somewhat callous and invulnerable during her initial exchanges with Marius and her fellow gang members. This actually makes it even more moving when we see her softer side. But Barks comes across as vulnerable and, for lack of better term, traditionally feminine right from the start. She also did less method acting for her role than Jackman and Hathaway did for theirs. I certainly can’t blame her for that, but neither can I deny that she looks less convincingly wretched than they do. The character still basically works in the movie, but there’s a nagging sense that it could work better.

Some of the Cuts

For the most part, I believe this movie makes great decisions at to what to cut and what to keep from the stage musical. (I hope to go into this at greater length in Part 3.) But as a fan of the score, some of the deletions do leave me a little wistful. I know I just questioned Samantha Barks’ acting choices, but she really is a great actress/singer and I feel like she deserved to do her character’s full death song, A Little Fall of Rain, on the big screen. [5]I’ll defend this cut to an extent in the aforementioned Part 3. Another loss that makes me wistful is that of Valjean and Javert’s duet at the end of Confrontation, in which the former promises to always be there for Cosette and the latter promises to always be there to arrest him. The movie has ample material to still make those ideas clear to the audience though. From a storytelling perspective, on the other hand, I find it a bit odd that Marius’s wondering aloud who rescued him was cut as it sets up a major climactic plot point. As with many deletions, I assume it was for time. There’s only one cut that really, really bothers me though. One of the verses from Javert’s Suicide. [6]Yes, I know this means I want more of Crowe singing in the movie. It’s a verse that marks an important transition in his attitude. The song doesn’t flow well without it. Javert ends up going from defiant to despondent without a pause. I’d love to see an extended cut of the film. Much of it would make the movie too long, but that one retention would be welcome. [7]And other extensions would still be interesting for fans to see and hear, even if they weren’t ultimately improvements.

The Wedding

During the Wedding Chorale, the movie largely focuses on the Thenardiers sneaking into Marius and Cosette’s wedding reception. This is entertaining and gives fans a chance to see something they can’t onstage. But I’m personally disappointed that it takes our attention away from the bride and groom. Marius and Cosette’s romance is one of the few storylines in Les Misérables to have a completely happy ending and this song is one of the few songs in the musical that expresses undiluted joy. It’d have been so nice to be able to enjoy it without distraction.

The Ending Could Be Clearer

The movie’s uplifting finale depicts the spirits of the dead characters on a massive barricade during the 1848 Paris revolution. This is rather an odd event for a Les Misérables adaptation to celebrate since Victor Hugo and Napoleon III were not fans of each other. [8]To put it mildly! But being generally willing to put history out my mind when I watch movies (and even when I’m not watching them), I can see the appeal of contrasting a successful revolution, one with a much bigger and more heavily defended barricade, with the one we saw fail. It’s in keeping with Hugo’s ultimately optimistic message [9]In Les Misérables, I mean. He can be more cynical in other books. that no matter how grim history looks at the moment, the world is gradually improving rather than worsening. But unlike other time skips in the movie, we’re given no captions explaining the political situation or what year it is. (Presumably, this is to avoid distracting from the lyrics.) Adding to the confusion, the deceased characters aren’t dressed any differently from how they were in life. Nor are they noticeably cleaner. [10]There is a good argument to be made that Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) would always be happier in his urchin garb anyway. The movie relies solely on the actors’ facial expressions to communicate the joy and peace their characters have apparently found beyond the grave. I think the actors deliver on that, especially Jackman and Hathaway. But watching the scene for the first time, I was initially confused and wondered if this was a weird flashback. Once you figure what the scene is supposed to be, I think it works wonderfully, but it takes a couple viewings to appreciate.

So can the 2012 Les Misérables be a masterpiece, as I called it in the title of my last post, if it has all these issues? If a masterpiece is defined as work of art with no flaws, then maybe not. But if a masterpiece is defined as a work of art whose strengths render any flaws immaterial, then yes! And, anyway, this story is about showing grace, guys.

References

References
1 If Hooper has ever explained them on a commentary for one of his other works, I’d be interested in hearing what he had to say.
2 Anne Hathaway knocks that scene out of the park! Her performance in this movie is awesome in general. I didn’t want to write about it too much in my original post because she and Hugh Jackman give the film’s most praised performances. I thought it’d be lazy to fall back on them too much and I wanted to praise Isabelle Allen, whom I feel doesn’t get as much credit as she deserves for this movie.
3 While we’re on the subject of the Thenardiers, I suppose I should also mention I’m not a fan of the bawdy comedy of the Master of the House scene. But that comes from the stage version and I’m writing about the flaws of this particular adaptation, not things from the source material, which other fans will expect and not see as problems.
4 There are plenty of other veterans of the stage play in the cast-Colm Wilkinson, Fraces Ruffelle, Hadley Fraser-but none of them recreating their onstage role.
5 I’ll defend this cut to an extent in the aforementioned Part 3.
6 Yes, I know this means I want more of Crowe singing in the movie.
7 And other extensions would still be interesting for fans to see and hear, even if they weren’t ultimately improvements.
8 To put it mildly!
9 In Les Misérables, I mean. He can be more cynical in other books.
10 There is a good argument to be made that Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) would always be happier in his urchin garb anyway.
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