Les Misérables the Movie
Aristotle warned tragedians against using an “epic structure” for plays, urging them to avoid the multiplicity of plots one finds in works like the Illiad. Epic poems, because of their length, can achieve a balance not possible in drama. “The proof,” wrote Aristotle in his Poetics, “is that the poets who have dramatized the whole story of the Fall of Troy, instead of selecting portions, like Euripides… either fail utterly or meet with poor success on the stage.”
The musical Les Misérables is something like a modern-day attempt to cram the whole fall of Troy into a play, putting into drama an epic tale that took Victor Hugo many hundreds of pages to tell. And yet, this musical version has not met the failure Aristotle predicted and has become, in its latest incarnation, a film that to date has grossed $460 million worldwide. The film arrives after the musical has run for nearly thirty years on stage in London’s West End and given rise to countless international and touring productions in over twenty languages. Thus, director Tom Hooper’s heavily advertised, Oscar-baiting film version is a highly bankable property and a nearly critic-proof feature guaranteed to fill the studio’s coffers. The reviews have been mixed, with the negative views sounding much like reviews of the original stage production: to many critics it is a saggy, bloated, uninspired rip-off of a classic novel with many of those same flaws. And yet the critics’ biggest target has been the performances in the ten or so major solos—Broadway power ballads that convey in aching detail every drop of their characters’ anguish. Hooper’s previous film was the Oscar winning The King’s Speech, which maximized the minimalism of stiff-upper-lip performances and restrained emotion. In Les Mis, there is little restraint, and Hooper and the cast take every chance they can to swing for the fences.
The weblike storyline of Les Misérables begins with Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict whose nineteen years in prison have made him hard and wretched. Where stage versions begin in chains and darkness, the film exploits its broader scope by opening on a huge ship being pulled through shallow water by the convicts. While in prison, Valjean meets Javert (Russell Crowe), a policeman who pursues him through the rest of the film as Valjean repents, reforms, and builds a life raising Cosette (Isabelle Allen and Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of the disgraced, impoverished Fantine (Anne Hathaway). After an almost entirely unexplained gap of ten years, we find Valjean and Cosette comfortably hiding out in Paris as a group of students attempt a populist revolution. Cosette and Marius Pontmercy (Eddie Redmayne), one of the student revolutionaries, fall immediately in love. Much of the story is a welter of conflicting romantic, political, and economic interests amongst the large cast of characters.
The opening number with its water-logged crew of hairy men grunt-singing before a giant ship promises a wider visual palette that the rest of the film rarely fulfills. Instead, Hooper keeps his camera close to the actors in midshots and close-ups and frequently lets us see long-takes with little cutting. His unusual method for capturing the performances has received much publicity. Instead of creating a vocal track which the actors lip-synch for the camera, the songs were recorded with live singing so that the actors’ physical and vocal performing could be simultaneous. This technique clearly contributed to the rawness and immediacy of the performances, but it may also have necessitated the repetitive camera movements during each of the big solos. Too often Hooper relies on intense, unwavering close-ups followed by a swirling crane shot, as if the camera feels ashamed of staring so long at the beautiful anguish and flies away, looking for something better to do.
Some of the actors fare better than others in these roles written for powerhouse singers. It is hard to quibble with the often-heard complaint that Russell Crowe’s acting—all steely reserve and spiteful grimace—far outmatches his reedy singing. There seems to be a missed opportunity here for casting Gerard Butler, whose musical chops are more proven. The stereotypical “Broadway Voice” with its lusty, build-to-the-swell dynamics serves the demands of large theaters where emotion is carried to the nosebleed section by the tone of the singing rather than by the inscrutable facial expressions of the actor. Hooper’s extensive use of close-ups translates this high emotion into film by holding every sniffle, lip quiver, and throbbing temple vein in the camera’s tight embrace. The much-lauded performance of Anne Hathaway as Fantine may be the apotheosis of this style, but the attention she has gotten is intriguing given that there are several other scenes with a heart-wrenching solo shot in close-up. Had Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” been a song that was not sung late in the second act, would the reaction have been so favorable? Hugh Jackman gives Valjean’s first big number his most riveting, red-eyed gusto, assisted by his shaved, scarred head and scraggly beard, but reactions to these moments (and others like them) have been less enthusiastic.
Owing to many of these shortcomings, Hooper’s movie version probably won’t replace the tenth anniversary concert production at the Royal Albert Hall—with its “dream cast” of many original stars from the show plus full choir and orchestra—in the hearts of franchise fans. Yet despite the flaws of Hooper’s film, it retains a primal appeal and capacity to stir deep emotions. A highlight comes in an early scene when Valjean is given food, wine, and shelter by a bishop whose unstinting, divinely-inspired grace leads to Valjean’s conversion. The bishop is played here by Colm Wilkinson, the Irish tenor who originated the role of Valjean. No longer the note-ripping stratospheric tenor of his youth, Wilkinson sings with a broken earnestness and seemingly gives his blessing to the younger man now assuming his signature role.
The scene in the bishop’s house is but one of many theological and even explicitly Christian moments. Valjean’s conversion by the grace of a bishop extends throughout the film as he prays before a crucifix and over the sleeping body of Marius. And the final number includes the line which might serve as the thesis of the show: “to love another person is to see the face of God.” It is in this distinctly Christian context that the escalating layers of misery become a kind of theodicy, an exploration of what to believe about God in the face of such persistent, widespread suffering. Virtually all the characters rely on strength from outside themselves to journey on, and the luxurious tragedy arises from perseverance in impossible loves, unachievable goals, and a host of other lost causes. Les Misérables certainly runs the risk of overload, of failing Aristotle’s test by packing too many plots into the tragedy. The constant movement from one character’s deep agony to another’s contributes to the exhausting experience of watching the film, but this plotting also emphasizes the interconnectedness of all the characters and their struggles. They are all miserable, but at least they are miserable together. And, more importantly, we in the audience get to share their misery and, for a couple of hours, be miserable together as well.
There’s an old adage in writing tragedies that it is best to keep the characters stoic and let the audience do the crying. This is another rule broken by the musical. Seeing Les Mis on film accentuates how often the characters weep. Nearly every member of the ensemble has a scene (or several) with streaming eyes. The source material’s melodramatic plot has greater cultural status in nineteenth-century fiction and in 1980s Broadway than it does in twenty-first-century cinema. Theatrical mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh who runs Les Mis as well as Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon and many other successful shows developed as his stock-in-trade the lavish—even garish—productions with broad emotional brushstrokes and expensive-looking spectacles like helicopters flying in from the rafters and entire walls bursting into flame. The medium of film seems less able to accommodate the extreme emotion and plotting made almost entirely of coincidences. And yet, my own viewing experience left me drained and wrung out by the end, and there were waves of sniffles and even open sobbing throughout the theater. It isn’t always easy to tell where those emotions come from, how directly an audience is responding to the film itself, but I suspect that the highly emotional, verging on maudlin, response of audiences to Les Mis has something to do with the contrast between critical negativity and popular success: the cool eye of criticism often must eschew the purely emotional reactions of the droves of mourning viewers. Les Mis consistently puts people into a pleasurably sorrowful state in the company of other viewers who ever so briefly weep together and then depart. This is old-fashioned catharsis, and while Aristotle never dreamed of billion-dollar catharsis machines like the Les Mis franchise, he did understand the seemingly universal desire for art to put us through the wringer.
Charles Andrews is Associate Professor of English at Whitworth University.