Even if a film is bad, I always enjoy going to the cinema. Even when it’s a cinema that’s been (perhaps rightly) criticised, I enjoy the darkness, the quiet, the lack of distractions (if things go as they should). And yet last night’s viewing of Les Misérables left me fuming. FUMING.
To give some context, I love musicals. I love choreography, I love songs, I love amazing lyrics melded with smart tunes, I love dazzling visuals and show-stopping numbers and moving moments all done to a catchy beat. And on top of that, I’m fairly fascinated by the French Revolution and it’s aftermath, thanks to a French mother and the chance to study that period with a great history teacher at school. So when trailers started appearing for Les Mis, I was giddy with excitement. To put it into further context, the one time I’d seen the stage show was September 11th 2001, so I was slightly distracted at the time by thoughts that we might come out of the theatre to a London no longer there. But I still loved the show. I can’t hear even a snippet of ‘One Day More’ without goosebumps - even bigger goosebumps with ‘Can You Hear the People Sing?’ (which I kept singing the opening lines of on a loop this morning to the kids, until my 100% excellent mother-in-law joined in with the rest of the lyrics which I’d failed to memorise and I was sufficiently stirred to form the barricades and turn our bedding into flags right there).
So my wrath was a surprise. From the very mixed reviews I’d heard, I was prepared for it not to be perfect; I was prepared for it to be flawed. But from the very, very opening moments, before JVJ has even opened his heavily bearded mouth, I felt my lip twitching a little bit. Why won’t the camera stay still? Why is there a perfectly arranged shot of perfectly lined-up men pulling on the ship’s ropes, then a swinging, out-of-focus series of quick-cut shots between people we don’t even know yet, when nothing has happened besides the orchestra striking up?
Things didn’t improve. It seems that despite the grand, epic nature of the music, the themes and the story, Tom Hooper had decided to shoot almost all of the film on handheld cameras, lending a woozy, dizzy feel to all of it. As if that wasn’t bad enough, very little of it was even in focus. IN FOCUS. This is BASIC FILM MAKING, HOOPER (some v interesting thoughts on that here). Jesus, I got cross. Key scenes lost any power by the audience being unable to see the singer’s face clearly, and my eyes got bored of squinting.
The editing, too, was unbelievably distracting. Putting aside the hugely rubbish habit of the quick-cuts in a scene or moment which required the precise opposite, key lines in songs would be thrown away by suddenly cutting to a different view - not in the middle of a verse, or even the middle of a line, but in the middle of a word. God, I’m getting so angry all over again. I acknowledge that because of the unique nature of what Hooper was attempting - live singing from each performer, rather than miming to pre-recorded tracks - the editing might have been a real bugger: the slightest error would mean the whole song might need to be shot again, rather than editing in the usual way with the fixed backing track keeping it all in line. But JESUS CHRIST. The ONE song in which Eddie Redmayne managed not to sound like he was slowly having the life wrung out of him by an amorous Eton mother (‘Empty Chairs, Empty Tables’) was completely crushed by having his lines chopped in two as the camera switched between ‘close up ear’ and ‘close up face’. Did I mention ? TOM HOOPER HEARTS THE CLOSE UPS. Still, it is now hilarious to sing ‘Cosette, Cosette’ in the manner of one having one’s throat sat upon. This editing was also horribly noticeable in the big numbers with tonnes of singers. In West Side Story’s ‘Quintet’, you can hear every word from every performer: you know just what their story is, their feelings, why they’re singing and what it signifies in contrast to the others. In Hooper’s versions of ‘One Day More’ and ‘Every Day/A Heart Full of Love’ there was very little way of telling what the hell was going on. Chaos. Shots were too tight, cut randomly, and sound levels were all over the place, meaning you’d be given a glimpse of someone half-way through a vowel (with the rest of the line lost completely) before the shot switched to someone else singing an entirely different word… If you feel exhausted reading this, think how I felt watching it.
And this Singing Live thing meant that the whole thing was laden with the sense of a sound stage. Rather than being epic, filthy, chaotic (in a good way), alive, the film felt like a series of stage sets, not least for numbers like ‘Lovely Ladies’ (hellooooo, big stagey props!), and with utter silence when people weren’t singing (and oh god, they just sing everything, all the time). Where was the background noise of the swarming streets? Where was the sound of the people who filled this dirty, busy city?
Some of the costume and makeup decisions seemed a bit weird too. Poor Samantha Barks, an utter star and all-round good-egg, made me gasp out loud the first (and brief) time the camera panned away from pore-scanning close-up to reveal her whole body. Something about the shape of her dress made her cinched-in waist look like a bad photoshopping job. And while the rest of Redmayne’s revolutionary chums had Mumford et Fils hair, he was landed with… well. If anyone can look at this google image search for him and tell me how it doesn’t appear that he walked into Hairdressing his first day on set and someone said, “Shit! We’re out of time. Just go on as you are, Eddie love,” I will give you a million of some, as-yet unspecified currency.
Fortunately, I had my husband to help with some of the more baffling points. As the film started, he leant over and whispered, ‘I’ve actually bothered to read this, so if you have any questions…’, making me snigger childishly. But I DID. Why was Gavroche/the Artful Dodgé so annoying? (In the book, he’s a much more important character, and older, too.) Who was that white-haired doctor-fellow who turned up after the barricade battle and just sang ‘YOOOOUUUUUU!’ at Marius from the stairs? (I’d forgotten the throwaway glimpse of Marius’s grandfather earlier, although apparently the book makes much more of this and it’s far more important - you like that? Why not read Dickens’s Dombey and Son, which does that broken family stuff awesomely!) Were there really so few men at the barricades? (Maybe only a few dozen in the book, although the film seemed to have ten at most. NICE EPIC FEEL, HOOPER.) Why does JVJ act like such a dick about sacrificing himself to justice when he’s just sung about how many lives rely on him? (His religious rebirth is much more explicit in the book, so his need to save an innocent man makes more sense.) Why do Hugh Jackman’s teeth become more and more like his drunken lookalike’s in The Prestige? (Unknown.)
The one chance Hooper had to inject some contrast into the film (‘Master of the House’, which always makes me sing ‘Everyone’s a fruit and nut case’ in the chorus) he threw away completely, filming it in the same higgledy-piggledy close-up, handheld ugliness he films JVJ’s religious revelations, Fantine’s surrender to darkness and Gavroche’s death (hurray!). After all this, it seems almost churlish to start on Baron Cohen’s insistence on using twelve accents when one would do. But I’m certainly not the only one to have been bothered by the film’s flaws.
Nice things, though? At one point, it ended. And at least it wasn’t as bad as Skyfall.