My day-job coworkers and I opened gifts from our “Secret Santas” at an office Christmas party this week, and my friend Eric received a box of the complete Lord of the Rings Pez dispensers. There they are, several hobbits, men, a wizard, and Gollum… plastic heads on plastic sticks, looking grim and yet promising a sugar high.
I suspect it’s only a matter of time until we see the Les Misérables Pez dispenser set. And that isn’t just because Les Misérables has a similarly enthusiastic fan base. It isn’t just because the beloved source material — in this case, a musical that has been dazzling London audiences for almost 30 years — is finally getting a big-screen adaptation.
No, there’s another reason. Les Misérables is a movie about heads.
I’ll explain. But first, let me set the stage.
My colleague Moira Macdonald began her Les Misérables review with the words “Resistance is futile.” And I have no doubt that most audiences will be won over. (The crowd at the sneak preview cheered ecstatically.) But some may find that the powerful waves of emotion that come crashing through the screen just drive them up to higher ground rather than carrying them out to sea.
That’s where I found myself about 20 minutes in. The characters, the music, the story — this elaborate epic never swept me away precisely because it insisted. It never invited.
Directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), this big screen version of the musical is going to be for lovers of musicals what Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings was for lovers of fantasy literature. It brings great actors, great production design, great music, and great special effects together for a vivid manifestation of a beloved narrative. Many will come for love of the novel, many for love of the play.
But there will be some — and I confess that I am one of them — for whom this is an introduction to the story, the characters, and the songs. I attended the screening with some apprehension. Would this prove to be a party that could only be enjoyed by those already in the know? Or would it draw me in and make me a believer? I had no reason to worry. My love of literature, musicals, stories about redemption and mercy, and cinema suggested that I was in for a feast.
And now that I’ve emerged from the movie, my head is full of songs and I can finally see why this story has brought so much heartbreak and so much joy. Victor Hugo’s vision of Paris in the years after the French Revolution is grandiose in the best ways.
Here, the hero called Jean Valjean is played by Hugh Jackman with the intensity of a man told he must win an Oscar or die. As he’s proven at the Oscars before, he’s an impressive singer. And his physical transformation over the course of the film might make him a contender against the formidable Daniel Day-Lewis of Lincoln and Joaquin Phoenix of The Master. But another actor might have brought a greater sense of darkness to the role of a man whose one small crime — stealing bread to feed his sister’s starving children — doomed him to many years of hard labor and humiliation.
To be free, Valjean must escape the watchful eye of the merciless, wrathful Inspector Javert who makes his life a living hell. Russell Crowe plays Javert. And this is a big problem. Crowe seems comfortable at only two moments in the film: one, when he draws his sword and tries to fight Valjean, and the other when he’s bloodied, bound up, and hating his captor. Of course, Crowe is quite familiar with moments like those; he knows what to with them. But he looks a little lost the rest of the time, as if he’s looking for a way out instead of looking for Valjean. He doesn’t have the voice for his songs. And his villainy is too repressed, too internal to belong in this film of irrepressible emotions. As a result, he walks through it looking… forgive me… miserable, as if wishing Ridley Scott would show up and revise this into another combat-focused period piece like Gladiator or Robin Hood.
When Valjean slips away and remakes himself into a factory overseer, he allows one of his workers, a single mother named Fantine, to be expelled by deceitful, jealous, greedy coworkers and a wicked foreman. Fantine is played by Anne Hathaway, who finally delivers the volcanic performance that her enormous eyes and ever-so-slightly desperate manner have promised she would someday deliver. Remember when she almost had a meltdown introducing Steven Spielberg at the Oscars? That was subtle compared to this, which is the acting equivalent of an Olympic pole vault for an Oscar of her own. After Fantine’s descent into prostitution, which is driven by her dream of giving her daughter a future, things go from bad to worse. Hitting rock bottom, she takes a deep breath and unleashes the movie’s biggest and most heartbreaking song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” about as spectacularly as anyone could have hoped for.
But again, it’s all emotion. Fantine is more of an open wound than a character, a big-screen demand that you either weep for her or admit that you’re a heartless bastard. I’m not keen on movies that boss me around, so while I could admire the sustained emotions and the rivers of tears, I felt as if I were looking at an icon of a saint whose story has been forgotten. I have only the sketchiest description of her life and suffering. So while I’m impressed by the way in which Hathaway goes to pieces in close-up, I’m not particularly moved.
And so the story proceeds, with Valjean realizing his error and striving to bless this poor woman by taking the little girl Cosette into his care. You probably know how it goes: Cosette grows up (to be played by an angelic but uninteresting Amanda Seyfried), lives in hiding with Valjean, meets a spirited young revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne, and he’s a fine singer), and breaks the heart of Marius’s longtime admirer Éponine (Samantha Barks). Then, strife between the 99% and the 1% leads to an Occupy Paris movement, which results in all kinds of… you know… relevance. And musket-loading. And death. And weeping.
The film’s unflinchingly positive portrayal of Christian faith, and its unquestioning depiction of Jesus as a redeemer of hearts and minds, is astonishing, actually. It’s bolder than we had any right to expect, bolder than even its director seems to realize. When a reporter for TIME asked about the film’s blatant religious references, Hooper replied,
The story is full of coincidences, and in a world full of God, those kind of coincidences have meaning. In order for the story to function, God has to kind of be a character. I tried to hint at the existence of the sublime through, you know, an extraordinary sky, or the light behind a cloud, or when a paper flies up and goes to a sort of tear in the clouds. I was referencing traditional late-medieval religious painting, or even Turner. I wanted to tell it in a way that, whatever the nature of your faith, you felt included.
The stage production of Les Misérables is often called a “musical,” but the movie makes it clear: this is an opera. Everything in it is sung, and every scene “goes up to 11” (as Spinal Tap‘s Nigel would say). There is no suffering but the most excruciating suffering. There are no tears but weeping, no love but the sort that drives young men to sing about “a night bright as day.” There is so much emoting going that the characters’ personalities take on very little, if any, particularity. Fantine wails, going down in flames. Valjean suffers nobly. Javert is a glowering hunter. Marius is a golden boy, all passion, no intellect. Cosette is an angel in a bonnet.
Only Samantha Barks, as Éponine, seems to realize she’s on a big screen, and that she doesn’t need to exaggerate to be heard. Where all others project, she invites. Where the rest demand emotional responses in a way that blows your hair back, she has a quieting presence that draws us forward. Every line Barks sang, every expression, was so effortless, so in-character, so comfortable, that I believed every moment she was on screen. My friend walked out and said, “She’s the only one who realized she was in a musical and not a contest.” I wanted to follow her character out of the melodrama and into something that felt more contemplative, less declarative. Hathaway will probably win the Oscar, but Barks won my heart.
Fans of the musical may scoff at my response and conclude that I just don’t understand or appreciate musicals. But that’s not true. I’ve loved them since childhood, and have fond memories of participating in school musicals. I’m still a sucker for Mary Poppins, and The Sound of Music stirs up memories of the holidays in childhood. Moulin Rouge! is one of my favorite films. I can’t sing “The Rainbow Connection” without getting choked up. I suspect that if I had come to know this material some other way, I might have been more moved by the familiar.
But the problem for me is not the story, nor the songs. It’s Tom Hooper. As with The King’s Speech, for all of the resources at his disposal and the talent in front of his camera, he’s a surprisingly unimaginative director with an extremely limited visual vocabulary. You’ll get a great deal more visual imagination in a typical hour of television drama than you will here.
For the first five minutes of the film, as I watched slaves hauling a ship in to port, I was impressed by what I saw. It was a breathtaking spectacle, that tilting ship, those men straining in waist-deep water. But that was the last image that impressed me in the whole film. From that point on, the movie was comprised of Facebook-avatar close-ups, with occasional and dizzying glimpses of the extravagant sets and streetscapes. The camera dives toward forehead furrows like a plow plunges into a field. The head wounds, the nostrils, the beads of sweat, the matted hair… the faces fill the screen so frequently that it’s like a dream in which a Chuck Close exhibit comes to life.
Thus, actors rarely get to share the screen. When five actors sing interweaving melodies of a song, we don’t see them together; we see Face! Face! Face! Face! Face! and then run through the cycle again. Alfred Hitchcock spoke of cinematography in musical terms, and he described close-up shots as clashes of cymbals. These cuts from clash to clash made me want to cover the ears of my eyes.
This might have earned the film comparisons to Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. But Dreyer’s style made each face a stark illustration, like a woodcut, and he gave us time to contemplate those faces, to study them. The film was silent, so we are meant to read the expressions closely. The life behind and within those faces… that was the subject. Hooper has no patience for studying anything. He seems to rely on close-ups because he has no idea what to do with the space around his characters. The film will look great on a phone.
He also has a poor sense of filming action. Whenever characters hurry from one place to another, the action is disorienting and blurred. And in the editing room he’s as restless as Michael Bay.
And Hooper seems to have no imagination for showing; it’s all telling. Rather than suggest implications through composition or poetic suggestion, he lets the actors and the lyrics do all of the work. If there are images in this film worth thinking about, I didn’t see them.
Feeling pummeled by the film’s surging demands for sympathy, for tears, for moral outrage — anything, as long as it’s an extreme emotion — I began feeling numb and pondering alternative storylines. When Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter showed up as if they’d just staggered drunkenly out of a Tim Burton cast party, I sat up and paid attention. They didn’t really fit into the film’s world of anguish, but they were hilariously idiosyncratic and interesting. I can imagine a fantastic satirical version of this saga, in which they’re the sympathetic hosts, à la Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
I suspect that this testimony will earn me a lashing from fans. The power of Les Mis‘s narrative, the force of its music and lyrics, and the enthusiasm of its fan base are considerable, and anyone who criticizes the film is probably going to look like a monster. They’ll explain that the movie gives audiences a chance to see what the stage show could never show us. And I get that: A stage show cannot zoom in on Valjean’s massive head wound, nor can it give us an aerial view of Javert pacing the walls of … what, Isengard?
Further, the relentlessness of the cross imagery and the positive characterization of Christian faith will probably make it a movie that a lot of Christian media voices immediately sanctify; they’ll treat criticism as sacrilege.
Hey, I have no problem applauding a narrative as profound as this one. But here I go again, digging out Ebert’s fundamental rule of film criticism: “A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.” The filmmakers don’t get credit for the story; that belongs to Victor Hugo. As Gandalf might say, all the filmmakers have to do is “decide is what to do with the material that is given to us.” These filmmakers made me feel like I was suffocating, and I was oh so glad to get out of that theater.
There is so much about this story that is cinematic… but we’ll have to wait for another director to capture that. Instead of zooming in on what was already writ large, Hooper could have found particularity, personality. Instead of amplifying emotions on giant heads, it could have increased our sense of whole human beings. It’s a shame to have a screen so large and not capture any poetry. (For an example of a grand, emotional epic delivered with dazzling visual imagination, see Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, a film that felt more like a musical to me even though none of its characters sing.)
So that’s why I (somewhat snarkily) suggest that this is the perfect film for a Pez set: A gallery of big famous faces that open up to deliver blasts of energy that inspire quick rushes of adrenalin. These moments are intense while they’re happening, but they dissolve, giving us nothing much to chew on, nothing like a challenge.
Unless we can wade out through those surging tides of passion, reach out and seize the ropes that connect to Les Misérables itself — Victor Hugo’s massive, magnificent ship of a story — and haul it in to port: a monumental vessel full of spirit and substance.
Better, we could stay home, sit in a comfortable chair by the fire, open the book, and let the words that started it all invite us to the world within the lines, and between them.