‘Miserables’ — when ‘Les’ means more

Movie: Les Miserables; Director: Tom Hooper; Studio: Universal Pictures and Working Title Films; Rating: PG-13; My finding: 3/5 stars.

Director Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables,” which follows 2010’s excellent best picture-winning “The King’s Speech,” is allowed to soar at times, but is hampered by undue pretension in some places, and a complete lack of attention to detail in others.

It must be said that Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine is, by far, the single greatest part of this film. She had shown promise playing an addict let out of rehab for a few days to attend her sister’s wedding in 2008’s “Rachel Getting Married,” which was a much-needed reinvention for her career after being associated with sugary Disney princess movies earlier in her career. But nothing prepared me for the power she displays here.

Fantine is a factory-worker-turned-prostitute who slaves away to send the little money she earns through her boredom or physical destruction to her daughter, who was sent to live with nasty foster parents. But that is only a subplot of the film, which means that halfway through the film – and soon after the finest version of “I Dreamed a Dream” ever encountered in the long history of the production – the audience loses the anchor, Hathaway, that keeps the film from sinking under its own pretension.

The film starts so beautifully, as prisoners (practically slaves) in post-revolutionary France haul a damaged ship into a dry dock amidst collapsing waves. They sing, in harmony, of the years of trials and tribulations they’ve been through to pay back society after primarily minor crimes. It’s unusual for Hooper to shoot such open, airy scenes, and the treat won’t last much longer than this opening shot.

It could be said that pulling a ship into a dry dock that is actually dry, and not flooded, at the time is a punishment the prisoners endure. After watching the entire movie, though, this is probably a research error because Hooper feels that “art” – whatever that word means – must triumph over reality at every step. Apparently basic historical accuracy isn’t important, as the film is supposed to chronicle the misery of Parisian and French life in the years between the revolution and the 1832 June Rebellion, which are real events.

The 1862 novel by Victor Hugo was an epic that, at about 1,500 pages in the unabridged English translation I’ve seen, is one of the longest historic epics already a genre known for length ever. The fictionalized characters stood in for the common French city-dwellers (who inexplicably talk here in the dirty, cockney accents of 19th century London) who lived in poverty and misery (the title literally means “the miserable”) in some of the darkest years in French history.

No film should be held to the

standards of an epic novel, so this film is an adaptation of the beloved Broadway musical – and that’s too bad. Certainly in a fine stage show, every character would be a competent singer who could sing on key; not so here. In a stage show, a competent director would balance the elements of the show; not so here. No, Hooper, probably high on himself after the success of “The King’s Speech,” went all-out with a level of experimentation not often seen outside the private screenings of movies made by failed film theory graduate students.

We’ve got the Dutch angles famous in silent German expressionism films, early talkies and film noirs to define unease bandied about in nearly every scene, twisting the frame to perhaps make the film “artsy.” I’m really unsure. We’ve got the performers singing live in every scene, instead of lip-syncing to studio versions, which is what an audience would see in a live show. But once again, that “artfully” ignores the opportunities presented in the film and video format – to the detriment of quality.

Finally, we’ve got the cutting-edge usage of every single scene being shot from myriad angles so that in post-production the film might actually be assembled. Despite the production really boasting about all the techniques used in the film, it just doesn’t work. Sure, the opportunities presented in the more-camera-angles-than-normal format could be a godsend when you’re having the performers sing live and only one take will work. But if that’s the case, why use these angles? It seemed that a quarter of the scenes used shots that cut off the heads of actors, which does absolutely nothing to either draw a viewer in to suspend disbelief, or to add any context to the scene.

If the audience is to follow a film that’s primary plotline is that of a minor parole violation, distractions must absolutely be kept to a minimum for the audience to still care. After Hathaway finishes her role at the midpoint of the film (for the most part), the audience is left with Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean, a former convict and parole violator who stole a loaf of bread decades ago. Valjean has reinvented himself as a stable citizen, but is being chased by Russell Crowe’s Inspector Javert. This might have been immersive enough if it weren’t for the fact that only about five lines in the entire film are spoken; the rest are sung (if it can be called that). Everything from introductions to hellos are sung in a sort of tuneless, sing-songy way that truly takes away from the centerpiece productions that should be sung.

Jackman has been known as a stage performer and singer. But when offered lines to sing live that have absolutely no emotional bearing or significance to the story, any performer could falter. If one had never seen either of these actors before, they could be forgiven for thinking producers dragged two men with reedy, thin voices off the streets to communicate in a schizophrenic, distracting manner. The pair does just fine on the actual songs, but all the dialogue being sung is a misstep that lays most of the film to ruin.

To add an insult to our eyes to the injury our ears endure, Hooper continues his love affair with close-ups, distortingly wide lenses and narrow depth-of-field. Sounds beautiful – if one is talking about still-image portraiture. But with a depth-of-field that I approximated to be the width of a human hair, if an actor so much as moves one of their own hairs, there is nothing to be seen.

Sure, emotion runs rampant. I might have cried during Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” – if a more responsible director had made it. The close-up shot, with backgrounds so out of focus as to not matter, and the single-take delivery reminded me of Sinead O’Conner’s music video to her hit cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” – even down to the flowing tears. Surely nothing could be more raw and intimate than that when it comes to setting a face to song, and Hathaway does throw her entire being into this song. But Hooper wants to undercut her at every second. Her face writhes in pain and her missing teeth, sold for a pittance, bleed as the emotion flows out of her, but the focus lags and disrupts the rawness of the scene. I almost closed my eyes to enjoy the song, but that would have deprived me from enjoying the performance.

Needless to say, any film adaptation of a stage musical has a built-in-audience that will adore the film – or at least watch it multiple times – and the strengths of this film may win over newcomers. It is simply too bad that a production with this much promise, passion and energy should be so held back by show-off production tactics and forced performance gimmicks.

Save the trouble and pain of the film and just watch Internet videos of Hathaway’s performance later in the year.

(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews will appear periodically in Thursday’s Arts &?Entertainment section.)