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Les Misérables (Tom Hooper, 2012)

January 25, 2013

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In attempting to condense its lengthy stage-based source material into a wieldy form for film, Tom Hooper’s still lengthy adaptation of Les Misérables suffers from the cutting of corners. Despite spanning three different time periods and concerning multiple protagonists, the film maintains a breakneck pace, presumably present in most performances of the stage musical, but without the breathing room usually accounted for in film. As a result of the film’s editing, character introductions and emotional beats are hurled at the viewer with little time to form an attachment or process their impact. There’s no vital breathing room between, say, the introduction of the character of Éponine, the reveal of her love for the character of Marius, her sadness regarding Marius’ interest in someone else, and the big musical number in which she sings about loving Marius while he loves someone else. The odd performer, like Anne Hathaway as Fantine, manages to transcend the speedy story methods, but, for the vast majority of the film’s running time, narrative engagement and character investment amount to null with such a steamrolling approach. As presented here, Les Misérables is not a riveting tale with emotional heft, but instead a bludgeoning barrage of broad, bombastic beats, and often intolerably dull.

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Editing problems extend beyond narrative issues and to the structure of each scene. Single, held takes occasionally make an appearance, such as in Hathaway’s big number, but the film is mostly built on shots lasting mere seconds, intercut with other shots of the very same objects of focus except at a different, often puzzling angle. If greater immersion was an intention of the various experimental approaches to the film musical (gritty aesthetic, live singing), it is completely undone by the distorted, overly pronounced presentation. Close-ups, a tool for cinematic intimacy, are rampant in Les Misérables, but they are generally best for capturing subtlety. They are not nearly as successful when used for actors belting out songs, especially ones often reliant on their surroundings. Inspiring numbers like “When Tomorrow Comes” are diminished by the cinematography’s robbing of the film’s sense of physical scope, with the actually quite impressive production design rarely relished by the film’s camera. For all the talk, or rather singing, regarding the film’s world, the details of it are almost entirely sidelined to the edges of the frame.

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The close-up is the favoured shot type of the film, and its compositions are heavy on ultra wide angle, fisheye lens usage, frustratingly wobbly handheld filming and awkward framing of its performers, adding even more hindrance that only Hathaway really manages to break past. The other visual quirk the film runs with is the Dutch angle. The shot type is not an inherently bad creative decision, and even made the occasional bit of sense in Hooper’s The King’s Speech where it was sometimes appropriate for projecting its protagonist’s mental state. In Les Misérables, the motivation behind the use of the tool rarely makes sense. Perhaps the one case where it does is when a group of vicious, harassing women become distorted as they increasingly oppress a lead character. Otherwise, the compositions are a jarring, frequently baffling display, especially as they are most often in the form of two to three second long establishing shots, sometimes for locations and events we have already been witnessing.

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There’s the occasional striking visual, but there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the abundantly garish shooting, as though Hooper wants to imprint an obvious sign of deliberate direction in the film’s aesthetic but without actual sound reasoning. He’s not even consistent with his own style, as the lone comedic number “Master of the House” is shot like a performance from a more traditional musical, with dancing and characters addressing the camera in such a way that practically acknowledges that they know they are in a film. Coincidentally, as out of place as it feels with the piece’s tone, that performance is one of the few moments of the film with any verve to it. One wonders if the film as a whole might have been salvaged by a few more conventional touches.

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