It should be noted right from the start that I am an unusual Ghey, but a typical filmmaker: I am entirely contemptuous of musical theater. Having said that, more often than not I have enjoyed the few Broadway or West End productions I’ve been to over the years immensely. It can be rocking great entertainment, but so can a magic show or figure skating or Cirque du Soleil.
To give you an idea of how bad it is with me, the few episodes of Glee that I’ve watched (most of its first season, actually), I fast-forwarded over the musical numbers. I cannot sing a whole show tune, just bits and pieces of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” because it has that mawkish Christmas carol quality that makes you all emotional, although you don’t know why. In fact, the more melodramatic and successful musical theater songs seem to have a lot in common with carols. I’m sure this has to do with some common key, or chord, or melody that brings out the weepies. I’d like a musicologist to explain the phenomenon to me one day. No rush, though.
In a way, show tunes are the Negro spirituals of the Gheys. They sing of our hopes, our sufferings, our dreams of appearing in fierce outfits high-kicking in front of an adoring audience, of finally being accepted as the fabulous creatures we really are, of being Liza and Judy and Patti. I personally might not feel any of that, but I certainly get it, and appreciate the important cultural role musical theater plays in Homolandia.
So, I should be the wrongest person to review Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables, the screen adaptation of the English version of the French musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s take on a Charles Dickens novel, set in Paris in the early 19th century. But this is a film, and should be judged along its merits as such, which is what I am qualified to do.
Should musicals be films at all? Of course they should. Why not? Just because the words are sung and not spoken doesn’t lessen their meaning or effectiveness. The first sound film, The Jazz Singer, was a musical, and the genre dominated the box office before being gradually swept to the side in the increasingly cynical post-War era. I really liked Rob Marshall’s Chicago, but that’s because I have a deep respect and admiration for Bob Fosse and his technique as a filmmaker as well as an entertainer; his style was inventive and had a swaggering, Dionysian forcefulness that is appealing to me. He pushed the boundaries with those low camera angles, backlit shots and samurai editing. All Marshall did in Chicago was update Fosse’s camerawork and design; otherwise, it wasn’t so much an homage as it was a color-by-numbers imitation.
As much as Fosse’s filmmaking was dynamic and sensual, Hooper’s is majestic and magisterial. He has made the absolutely correct visual decisions for this particular piece of filmed theater: His cityscapes of Paris in the early 19th century and the bigger crowd scenes in the streets take their cue from Neoclassical paintings of the Romantic period (with a major kowtow to Cecil B. DeMille). From the very first sweeping shot through the port—a breathtaking, museum-worthy use of CGI—he immerses you in a world whose aesthetic was informed by artists like Géricault, a billowing palette of ochre and amber and mahogany and crushed blacks. He deftly intercuts those monumental tableaus—you really do feel like you’ve been thrust into entire galleries of paintings in the Louvre at certain points—with close ups for the solo numbers shot on a long lens with the background completely out of focus, so that your attention cannot deviate from the performance, which is often left uncut in a single, powerful take. From a technical standpoint, when you are shooting that wide open on a long lens, if the performer moves even a few inches forward or backward, he or she will also be thrown out of focus. To my great pleasure, Hooper lets this happen—I have a lot of problems with pulled focus, but they are too didactic to address here.
In plain speak: If the panoramic shots evoke those epic Neoclassical paintings of the period, then those close ups for the solos are intimate portraits, equally painterly, and this juxtaposition is probably the most successful visual technique in this film’s particular lexicon.
When the trailer for Les Misérables first came out, there was a lot of hoopla online about how bad the casting is, but in fact it’s perfect, from Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe as Jean Valjean and Javert down to Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the petty crooks. At this point, Bonham Carter has decided to move into Sweeney Todd and live there permanently, and that’s delightful. As for Anne Hathaway as Fantine, after her turn in Dark Knight this year and her authentic, no-holds-barred performance in Les Misérables, I am now a solid fan. She is a great example of an actor successfully forcing her model-like physicality to be subservient to her talents as a performer; her beauty is now the gravy, not the meat of who she is.
As the emperor complains to Mozart in Amadeus about his music, “There are too many notes.” If I have any complaints about Les Misérables it’s that there is too much story. But saying that is the same as looking at one of those massive canvasses from the period in the Louvre or the National Gallery in London and saying, “This is too big, there is too much going on—I can’t take break this down in a single glimpse, and I want to.” What saves both the musical and those paintings is that you need to relax and simply appreciate the scope, the craftsmanship, the wow of it all, and put your cynical cool aside to give over to the intense emotionality of the drama. You cannot help but be moved by most of the sequences in Les Misérables; you’d have to be a sociopath not to be. I might not have been exactly sobbing, but the chorus of Gheys in the row behind me at the Arclight last night certainly was, almost all the way through the second act. (I’ve decided that’s our collective term: a chorus).
Indeed, Les Misérables is one of the most successful musicals of all time, and for someone like me, who never saw the stage production, I can see why in Hooper’s adaptation. I went to a midnight screening, which means the theater was packed with fans who were willing to stay up until 3 AM on Christmas Eve. Still, I have never been to a film in my life where the audience clapped eleven times, not counting the hearty ovation at the end. I clapped twice. I’d also been out drinking earlier, which means I was in a particularly punchy and “yeah, whatever” mood.
What stops me from loving it madly has nothing to do with the film as a motion picture. It’s the overwrought story, the histrionic narrative so typical of that century, the religiosity and themes of redemption, which for this orthodox atheist spoil the fun. Having said that, the narrative does have strong threads running through it that, like Jean Valjean’s uncommon strength, come in to hoist the piece back on its feet after the few times it falls in the mud.
I am the toughest customer to impress with a film like this, but impressed I was. I haven’t seen Lincoln yet, and there are a few movies still in the pipeline yet to be released, but from what I have seen so far, Les Misérables is the most likely to win Best Picture. For its tasteful, nearly flawless production, for its admirable performances all around—Jackman and Hathaway’s in particular (okay, Sacha, take a bow, too… now sit down, you clown)—I give it a: