Les Misérables is overblown & overrated

Even Anne Hathaway’s gut-wrenching performance as Fantine can’t save Les Mis

Whilst doing some consumer research on laptops recently, I ran across a charming technospeak term that was new to me: bloatware. It’s what computer geeks call those programs that come preloaded on new hard drives – you know, the ones that chew up huge amounts of memory and slow down the machine. But unless you’re a very confident IT type, you’re afraid to uninstall them, in case they actually do turn out to have some purpose besides selling you stuff.

It’s a neologism that might turn out to have other applications, and I think that I may have found one in the current cinema. I’m not sure what it’s selling besides itself, but for this viewer, the long-anticipated, multiple-Oscar-touted film Les Misérables is the screen version of bloatware. It’s interminable; it’s bombastic as hell; it feels histrionic when it’s supposed to be touching. And it’s big in every possible sense of the word.

Bigness is not a bad quality for a musical. Though I’m one of the half-dozen or so New Yorkers who never caught the long Broadway run of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic novel, I can appreciate that Les Mis might have had great sweep and grandeur on the stage – especially as viewed from the safe distance of the rear-third-balcony seats that the likes of a small-town journalist can occasionally afford. But, based on Tom Hooper’s interpretation, it’s a vehicle that simply doesn’t survive the transition to the film medium with its theatrical magic intact.

In fact, it’s precisely the bigness of the big screen, and how director Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen chose to use it, that makes this movie excruciating to watch. In the soliloquies, the camera is shoved so close into the singers’ faces that we could see every pore, if it weren’t buried under layers of pancake. And since these angsty solo numbers seem to go on forever, the viewer has ample leisure to ponder the inexplicable spectrum of colors not occurring in nature in which that makeup is applied. It’s tempting to imagine a parody in which the lens heads straight up a lead actor’s nostril and the plotline morphs into a medical school training film for surgery to remove polyps or correct a deviated septum.

By far, the single most irritating aspect of Les Mis the movie is the camerawork. When it isn’t bashing you over the head with King Kong-sized extreme closeups, it’s making you feel queasy with blurry focus pulls and abrupt, inexplicable changes of angle in the ensemble numbers. And the choppy editing just makes the vertiginous shakycam activity feel more nauseating. At least when you see a sprawling, operatic-scale musical onstage, you get to tell your own eye where to go when there’s a lot happening at once. Here, you are the cameraman’s prisoner, and like Jean Valjean as a galley slave, you may soon find yourself wanting to bolt. At least I did.

Much praise has been lavished on the performances in this version of Les Mis. Hugh Jackman sings tolerably well and carries the weighty role of the ethically tormented hero manfully, as long a slog as it is. It’s a bit distracting that he looks far younger when he’s singing about how old he has gotten near the end than in the opening scenes where he’s still a prisoner; but that’s just more blame to lay on the shoulders of the person or persons responsible for the bizarre makeup choices in this movie. Worst of all of the makeup artists’ sins is the depiction of the whores in the “Lovely Ladies” number: They look like they all belong to the same clown troupe, their whiteface and rouge splattered on every which way by someone in a great hurry.

But back to the acting: Although I wouldn’t quite call it Best Actress Oscar material, the acclaim that Anne Hathaway is getting for her big gut-wrenching number as Fantine, “I Dreamed a Dream,” is well-earned. She nearly made me stop wondering whether she was supposed to look beautiful or sickly in that scene. The trouble is that when Fantine finally perishes (of some unspecified 19th-century women’s ailment like consumption or the vapors), we still have two-thirds of the sprawling saga left to go.

Then there’s the strange casting of Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert. He doesn’t embarrass himself, but he never managed to convince me that an officer of the law has nothing else to do with his time besides obsessively pursue a single former prisoner (even though such things have been known to happen in real life, even here in Ulster County). But that may be less the fault of the actor than of the play, which cuts out the novel’s motivating scene in which Valjean, disguised as factory-owner Monsieur Madeleine, embarrasses Javert in front of his men.

The two primary child parts, the feisty street urchin Gavroche and Fantine’s pathetic young daughter Cosette, are admirably filled by Daniel Huttlestone and Isabelle Allen respectively; both appear to have a solid future in the acting profession. Big-eyed Amanda Seyfried looks lovely as the older Cosette; but she’s upstaged in our sympathies by the excellent Samantha Barks, a veteran of the stage version who beat out a slew of starlet contenders for the role of Éponine, who has been thrown over by the idealistic young revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) in Cosette’s favor. I’ve always found the premise of love-at-first-sight a bit tough to swallow, so the core romance angle seems a weak plot point to me.

The self-sacrificing Éponine is the grown daughter of the mendacious innkeepers the Thénardiers. While in the novel, Monsieur Thénardier is the main villain after Javert, the musical and the movie use the couple mainly for comic relief. Predictably enough, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen – the most horrible casting choices in the film – amp up the buffoonery to the max.

The King’s Speech notwithstanding, I’ve started to think of Bonham Carter the same way in which I viewed Jack Nicholson back in his prime: as an actor with prodigious gifts and tragically limited range. She typecasts herself by playing essentially the same over-the-top harridan character over and over again. Les Mis even makes a visual joke of it, showing her behind the scenes at the inn putting human body parts into a meat grinder à la Mrs. Lovett. Don’t get me wrong: I liked her in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd; but she doesn’t seem to know when to say “Enough already.”

Still, the movie’s stronger performances are its best reasons – if there are any compelling ones – to endure nearly three hours in the dark being visually and aurally battered. Regular readers of Almanac movie reviews will know that I don’t normally turn up my nose at long, long films, if they’re well-executed. Lots of critics and audiences seem to be loving this flick, and maybe you will too. But I truly can’t remember the last time I sneaked so many glances at my watch in a cinema as I did during Les Mis.

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  1. saw LS yesterday:couldnt agree more:would have been better in Italian or French.
    Took me 50 min. to realize it wasnt a musical but an opera:an exp. not to be repeated.Saw vignettes that came from “Oliver”.2 Fagans?

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