Les Miserables // The power of the spoken word

Tom Hooper's adaptation of Victor Hugo's tome and worldwide stage hit, Les Miserables, tries to say (or sing) so many things, piled on top of each another, that the resulting reaction from me was to cringe and look away. 

The movie wanted to be a lot of things and that is its downfall. It wanted to be a movie about a man who defies poverty and makes a better life for himself, it's about the love of a mother towards her child, it's a story of young love, it's about crime, punishment, justice, order, religion, oh throw in the Revolution!

I felt overwhelmed and exhausted and not in a good way. I understand that this is based on a very long novel and it is a book about a lot of things. The problem, I think, was that the translation from book to stage and subsequently, from stage to screen was a distilling process. It sacrificed much of the content and themes because of the restraints that is inherent in the theatre and cinematic medium. This epic story was distilled and the essence extracted. The problem is how this distilled material was handled.

There were a few directorial decisions that were made poorly. This idea that the actors sing on camera would have worked brilliantly if all the actors were extraordinary singers. It worked for some- Hathaway’s I Dreamed A Dream and Bark’s On My Own – were particularly powerful because their singing were both so incredibly affecting that you can’t help but weep alongside them. However, it did not work all the time. Russel Crowe was so lacklustre and restrained I did not feel anything for his character. I don’t mind if you mess up a note as long as you are able to sell your character and he doesn’t. I was supposed to feel his anger through his voice and he couldn’t bring that through the screen.  

If he was given the opportunity to just talk, maybe Crowe would have been able to draw a much more vivid picture of his character. Instead, he is forced to sing almost all his lines. That makes it so painful to watch. A musical is effective if there is a combination of actors talking and actors singing. If there was spoken dialogue thrown in there, it would have helped punctuate the movie. Which brings us to the film’s pacing.

The film’s other downfall was in its pacing and how the scenes were connected and strung together. I felt like we were just being dragged along – a  tourist bus view of the world of Les Miserables. There are certainly standout scenes but they don't quite gel together to form an effective dramatic whole. It felt like each song or each 'Big Scene' was bloated in its emotional grandiosity that when it cuts to the next Big Scene, I was left feeling strangely empty and emotionally detached. I was being asked to care for too many characters in too little time. The movie needed quieter moments. It needed a series of connective tissues that linked the Big Scenes, providing momentum, tension or sometimes a time to catch our breath.

At some points, I wanted the music and the singing to cease. It was like watching a two and half hour music video. A well-made, well-acted, well-staged music video. That is what is so frustrating with it. It had all the talent but it lacked sensitive direction. It lacked a deliberate pace. It lacked consistency. For a musical, the film plays really discordantly. It was a mess for me. 

One of things I love about musicals are those moments when characters break into song. They break into song. The characters take a break and take us by the hand and lead us away from the fictional reality even for only a few minutes. This is because when characters are singing they don't exist within the reality, they hover above it. Characters break into song to emphasise certain moments when they are straddling the line with the real and the not real. These are moments of elation and victory and melancholy and romance and humour and fear. They are moments of heightened emotional intensity. They are the peaks on the film's emotional seismograph. But you don't get peaks when every scene is a peak.

All you get is a flat line. 

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