Between The King’s Speech and now Les Miserables, Tom Hooper has already earned the Oscar Bait Director award from yours truly. His choice of casts are solid, if not quite A-list quality; the sets and costume designs are elegant, realistic and plausible; strong direction is sufficiently provided throughout, if with some inconsistencies; and he’s not afraid to add more meat to the runtime either. Yet where The King’s Speech offered a simple and familiar yet effective story thanks to investible characters, Les Miserables falls apart at the heft of its own ambitions as an adaptation.
At first, the journey of Jean Valjean (admirably played by Hugh Jackman) feels worthwhile and suggests potential for an impressive story. By the time we transition from Anne Hathaway’s emotionally searing rendition of Fantine, to the meeting of both Jean and Cosette, we’re ready to join them on a path to something that holds mystery, tension and possible wonder. Then we literally skip to the second act.
Right when we’re thrust into the French Revolution, Les Miserables buckles under immense pressure that seems to come out of nowhere. The introduction of Marius and the actual development of Cosette (assumed by Amanda Seyfried), both pivotal characters, are both incredibly short-changed. In fact, I think I missed any and all opportunity for Seyfried to leave her mark. What’s more is that these two are supposed to have some sort of a connection, something that feels sudden and almost out of a Shakespearean play. But even the loosest of Romeo & Juliet adaptations gave their characters time for establishment and some sort of growth. Half the characters in this rendition of Les Miserables, on the other hand, feel like plot devices leading to a constant, vicious cycle of what could be labeled bait-and-switch.
Even Jean Valjean is shafted amidst scenes of emphasis on our new characters. Each scene quickly begins to become less of a seamless transition between each other and more a desperate game of Leap Frog in attempt to cover what is too much ground for a feature film. At 157 minutes, Les Miserables drains both energy and attention from the viewer at most every corner. Thus we have a huge predicament, which turns into possibly the film’s biggest problem: it’s too long while being completely rushed. These cracks even show during the film’s opening minutes, with quick camera cuts becoming an odd distraction as Jean Valjean travels about the land of France.
All these shortcomings are unfortunate to the point of being tragic, since effort is very abundant. The work put into the look of the film is very noticeable, which stems from how deep-seated the very fabric of the story is in its setting. Although there’s little for almost any of the characters to consistently leave their mark, they give their all. Jackman is in good acting form, even if his singing voice isn’t the most captivating. Samantha Barks gives as much heart and emotion to Eponine as possible, given the aforementioned shortcomings. Really the only person who seems consistently developed and attended to is Russell Crowe as Javert. He’s the closest thing the movie comes to feeling complete, much less having a properly handled character. Javert might be the antagonist, but we see his motivations constantly brought into question, making him that much more human and, dare I say, fascinating. This is what the rest of the film is in desperate need of, but just can’t come to grasp.
Even in the hands of a capable director, Les Miserables seems meant not as a single sitting viewing, but as a deliberate read. Whether Victor Hugo’s novel jumps and stumbles as much as Hooper’s coerced attempt I have yet to see. But it’s difficult for me to imagine such an encompassing piece being translated to the big screen without an incredible amount of compromise.