People always ask me whether or not I think that Tom Hooper is a bad director because I feel that his “Best Director” Oscar win over David Fincher is the worst decision AMPAS has made in the last few year. Alright, no asks me that. They’re more likely to ask me, “Why do you have to be so negative? Abduction is like, the best film evar ZOMG!!!!1!” But I think that people SHOULD ask that question, and a review of his take on the phenomenally successful Les Miserables stage musical is the appropriate place to answer that question.
He certainly aimed high for his post Oscar film. Les Miserables has been in development hell since the musical opened; I am not even going to try to name the people who were once attached to the project. And The King’s Speech was hardly a film that would give anyone faith in his ability to faithfully adapt the bombastic musical to end all bombastic musicals.
But Hooper succeeds because he encourages everyone to push themselves to the limit. Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway give their best performances in recent memory. The sets are immaculately constructed. And the music is everything any fan could hope to hear. And some elements are actually improved in Hooper’s film. There has not been a filmed musical like this since Alan Parker quietly retired from the field.
What do I mean? Well, Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of the fallen Fantine is not something that could be properly captured on stage. She spends the film emaciated, bald, and constantly crying. Most singers on stage must belt out their songs to fill the auditorium. But that sort of delivery has no sadness. In Fantine’s final scenes of the film, she can barely speak, much less sing. She is constantly in tears and belts notes between sobs. This sounds melodramatic, and it is. But what is the musical if not the very definition of melodrama? The grand stage spectacle cannot capture those quieter aspects. But Hooper realized his film can, and does.
Of course, that is not the entire film. I have objected to musicals that have tried to be quiet before. And Les Mis is anything but quiet; it starts at forte and stays there. The film captures that operatic feel to the characters and their music. They all wear their emotions on their sleeves, and the simplest things take a three minute song to express. Now, these sound like bad qualities, but those are qualities that virtually every opera throughout the centuries. Most filmmakers, for whatever reason, have tried to shy away from that. Look at Joel Schumacher’s attempt at filming Phantom of the Opera. It’s subdued and seems afraid of its own score. Hooper embraces it with its large sets (that require actors to stand atop roofs to belt their numbers), camera that focuses on each actor as they sing their soliloquys, and fast editing that captures the sensory overload of the modern Broadway act. Again, if this were another film, I may throw it under the bus. But this is perfect, because it is what Les Miserables needs to flourish on screen.
Is the film necessarily perfect? No; it’s too long (and has multiple endings) and some of the cinematography (especially at the beginning of the film, during the “At the End of the Day” scene) seems as though Hooper gave the camera to a three year old and told him to point it at whatever shiny thing he could find. And the film also short changes the Thenadiers, meaning that there were no breaks between the grand set pieces. A very smart man, whose name I cannot be bothered to look up, said “You can only make it rain, once” in your work. The Thenadiers on stage ensured we got illusions of sunshine, but apparently Hooper wanted his film to be a monsoon.
But the film is absolutely faithful to its source. I cannot blame Hooper for overcompensating to ensure he gave people the experience they would normally have to go to Broadway to receive. And when the film works, it works so well that I found it easy to overlook the flaws the film possesses.
So, the answer to the question in the first paragraph is an enthusiastic no. Tom Hooper is not a bad filmmaker. He is a terrific one who knows how to properly capture what makes any story captivating. Well, the answer to the first question is “I work with what I have,” but this review is about how Hooper managed to achieve the impossible. He created a great film based on a work that should not ever have worked as a film. In fact, he even used the opportunity to improve upon certain aspects of the musical. Les Miserables deserves to be seen at the multiplex by as many people as possible.