All the way through this screen version of Les Misérables, I felt like something was missing. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it quite enough. I just felt that something was off, not quite right. It wasn’t until the film was over as I was leaving the theater that I realised what it was.
This screen adaptation of the stage musical of the novel by Victor Hugo lacks a certain epicness. Mainly I find this is due to the extreme closeup used for almost all the songs. While this works for the sombre, introspective “What Have I Done?” after the mercy shown Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) by the Bishop, and especially the famous “I Dreamed A Dream” performed with soul crushing despair by Anne Hathaway, the technique fails the film during the bigger numbers, especially the signature showstoppers “Do You Hear The People Sing?” and “One Day More.”
“Do You Hear” is the kind of song that should fill a screen (as it does a stage) and cries out for sweeping shots of a singing crowd. We do get a little of that, but not nearly enough. “One Day More” is truly hard done by, as having the main players in separate locations (requiring cuts between them) disconnects the heart of the song from the audience. Even the finale, which one would expect as a sweeping screen filler, is mainly closeups that do not show the relationship between the characters; behind the scenes footage shows Jackman and Hathaway together on a platform at the time, standing over the crowd, of which we see nothing.
All performances are top-notch, both acting and singing, with special mention to Jackman, Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne as Marius, who wins me over with a heartfelt rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”.
As for Russell Crowe as Javert, he does a fine job. While he’s no stage singer his presence and decent voice fit the role of the hardened, unforgiving police officer.
While it’s an admirable production and will no doubt attract all kinds of awards, I came out of Les Mis feeling drained – not by emotion but by the assault of singing actors in extreme closeup for near three hours. It’s good, but not great. I can’t help but wonder what a straight novel adaptation starring this amazing cast would have been like.