December 26, 2012 by Devin
While watching Les Misérables, I could not help but think of simile after simile for what this movie is like. This movie is like Michael Phelps with asthma. This movie is like Usain Bolt with a limp. This movie is like an out-of-focus Mozart painting. I’m sure there were more. The point is, this is a movie that should be an absolute classic but is hampered by one fatal flaw.
I will start with the good parts, though. The best part of the movie, without a doubt, is the casting. Hugh Jackman has the measured voice and physicality of Jean Valjean. His transformation from a wiry criminal unsure of his life to an older man is made believable mainly by his body posture and body tempo. Jackman is supported by a huge cast that has few sore spots. From the little rebellion boy to the mischievous scheming couple (played with great enthusiasm by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen), there are so many smaller parts that could have fallen apart, especially when compared to the leads. In the last third or so of the movie, a large number of characters are suddenly introduced, and while it may be jarring to suddenly have to care about these new characters, once they get going it is easy to be swept up.
The biggest spotlight of the movie is Anne Hathaway as Fantine who sings the famous piece, “I Dreamed a Dream.” If you have seen the trailer above then you already know that she absolutely nails it, but what was even more surprising was how fully embraced her character. She goes from a calm character with a sense of self-respect to someone who truly has to give up everything in a short time with remarkable believability. She has a small part, yes, but her character anchors Jean Valjean, and the film needed her to knock it out of the park. And she does.
The movie is further helped by wondrous set design. Whenever the camera swoops back to show 19th century France, the scene is breathtaking. The military uniforms’ bright colors contrast the muted browns of the city to make the city look old and well worn. It looks like slums, but it is not uninviting. There is a magic to the scenery that is not realistic but still magical. It is as if the buildings themselves are participating in the music.
However, the wonderful set design also highlights the problem with the film and the reason why it ultimately does not work as well as it should. Roughly 90% of the film is close-ups, and most of those close-ups are incredibly static. The faces of the actors fill up the screen more often than the scenery of France does. Most of the time, that beautiful scenery I was talking about is blurry and out of focus because there is a huge face in the foreground.
The best example in the film is Hathaway’s aforementioned “I Dreamed a Dream” song. Like I said, she nails the vocal part of it, and she acts it out as well, conveying the emotion not only in her tone but also in her face. The problem is that the whole song is a close-up of her face on a black background. The scene takes place on an old ship, a perfect representation of her emotional situation, but during the song all the audience sees is Hathaway’s face. She gives it her all, but there is only much she can do. There are no cutaways, no scenery, nothing at all to complement her in any way. It is as if she is doing an amazing dance with a mannequin (okay, I am done with the similes now).
This trend continues throughout the film. The camera has a comfort spot about 5-10 feet from the actor’s face that it hates to leave.* Every single song consists mainly if not completely of close-ups in this comfort spot, and every time the camera is away from this spot, it longs to be there. It was so bad that during the few moments of grandeur scenery and scope, I dreaded the upcoming song because I knew that the camera would go back to its comfort spot, condemning the scenery to out-of-focus background.
While this one flaw does not ruin the movie, it does make the film seem much smaller. A musical of this scope deserves to have dramatic crane shots, striking vistas, and an energy to it. Instead, most of the film takes place 5 feet from a singer. This closeness is limiting. There are so many places the film goes and so many sights to see, but most of the film looks remarkably uninteresting. Instead of a grand spectacle, the film looks like an actor’s exercise in creating faces.
I really do have a hard time recommending this film wholeheartedly. It still has a good story and fantastic singing, but the film hides its fantastic set design and relies on its actors to provide all the energy. They do a fantastic job, but they are given an impossible job. There is a fantastic movie here, but it exists outside of the frame given to us.
*I have a theory about why this exists. Unlike other musicals, the actors in this musical are actually being filmed singing on set rather than having it dubbed in. This means that they had to actually capture the singing, which means that they had to have mics set up, and unlike dialogue, which can be spliced together, they had to stay close in order to have them singing in sync with their own words. Considering that far away shots in this film usually don’t show the actors singing or do not show their lips, I think this theory is quite plausible.