I’m no film historian, but I imagine the whole idea of musical actors recording their songs ahead of time and then just lip-syncing on film arose out of practicality; the prospect of rigging microphones that could capture the voices, especially if there happened to be a tap-dance number involved, was no doubt daunting.
It’s precisely why so much has been made of director Tom Hooper’s decision to have the cast in his film version of Les Misérables sing their parts live, right there in front of the camera. As Hugh Jackman mentioned during production, live singing affords actors opportunities to emote more, letting the acting drive the moment, not the singing.
Unfortunately, it’s also what keeps Les Misérables from being an unadulterated success.
(…well, that and the fact that Russell Crowe doesn’t have nearly the voice required for a show like this. But I digress.)
Singing gives words a heightened level of emotion anyway, so providing actors with a chance to add even more emotion results in what Les Misérables becomes– an over-acted, overly-dramatic epic that succeeds despite the performances, not because of them.
The story, adapted from the juggernaut musical (and Victor Hugo’s 19th century French novel), tells the story of Jean Valjean (Jackman), a convict who wins his parole only to break it and spend the rest of his life on the run from Police Inspector Javert (Crowe).
Along the way, Valjean adopts young Cosette, the daughter of factory worker Fantine (Anne Hathaway), whose death (long story short) he feels responsible for.
At the same time there’s a bit of a revolution brewing in France (a few decades after the real one), which introduces us to student leaders Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Enjolras (Aaron Tveit). Marius falls in love with the now-grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), completely missing the fact that his friend-who’s-a-girl Eponine (Samantha Barks) in love with him.
There’s much more to the plot (as fans of the musical well know), including comic relief by way of the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), but we could be here all day going into every detail.
Yes, many fans of the musical may easily be swept up in the epic grandeur of Hooper’s production. He certainly knows how to keep things visually interesting, using every trick in the director’s book, including wide-angle lenses, off-kilter framing, shallow focus, and lengthy tracking shots. But there’s also a contingent of movie-goers (I’m among them) who may feel like some of the cast is trying just a little bit too hard.
Hathaway has already been practically handed the Supporting Actress Oscar for her brief screen time as Fantine, and while her voice is excellent, she chews so much scenery that I’m surprised she can still walk. Jackman, too, doesn’t seem content to end a scene until he’s squeezed out some tears, and Crowe (and his voice) seems dreadfully out of place, and he looks like he knows it.
On the plus side, the brilliant music and lyrics are all here (with a few minor tweaks), Hooper’s spectacle is awe-inspiring and completely immersive, and much of the cast does offer up jaw-dropping work, including Redmayne, whose restrained acting and powerhouse voice (his “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is stunning) elevate the second half of the film to stratospheric levels. And Barks’s performance is worthy of a Kanye West moment on Oscar night. Grab that Oscar out of Hathaway’s hand and give it to her instead, Yeezy!
Les Misérables is certainly a worthwhile production and worthy of many of its accolades (already received and still to come), but with a little more restraint and lot less ham, it could have been something really, really special.