Get it, it’s like in “defence” of, but the other way around, because I’m attacking the movie rather… than… what do you want, a friend of mine challenged me on twitter to write up my argument, and an hour was set for the challenge. I don’t know if she knows how much of a nerd I am about film, so she’ll probably be surprised. To kick off this writing exercise, let’s get down to business, and kick this shit off proper like: Les Miserables is a very bad movie.
The central reason is that I don’t give a shit about anything happening on screen. Granted, that’s intangible and “caring/not caring” is very hard to describe, despite it being the entire point of the narrative, to get you invested in this street-corner revolution. It failed to connect with me on two levels – that it’s a poorly told story, and it’s a poorly made film. We’ll start with number 1, as clearly, it’s the most important.
We never, ever, ever get to know any of these characters. Les Mis is structured like a pixellated painting on the side of a building, epic and impressive from a distance, but when you’re right there looking at it, it’s nowhere near as detailed as it needs to be to work. Like many (but definitely not all) musicals, it trades in broad characterisation in favour of sweeping emotion, which creates a story that is ultimately hollow. What do we know about Jean Valjean?
- He’s a convict.
- He was bad.
- Now he’s good.
I couldn’t tell you anything else. For the first five minutes he wants to generally be self serving, then a priest tells him not to, and he becomes generally selfless. I don’t know his habits, his mannerisms, anything that signifies real depth. The argument against this is: it’s a musical, there’s no time for that, because they’re always singing. Which I’m sure is true, but I’d say the story of Les Mis is totally unsuitable for this epic musical form, with it’s complete lack of focus on the main story. Guess who gets the most characterisation and development?
Those two played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. I can’t even remember their names, but I could tell you far more in detail their characters and relationships.
- They’re deceitful
- They love each other and scam together
- They’re able to be kind but only to those they already care about.
- SBC is insecure.
- HBC wears the trousers in the relationship.
- SBC is dumb, but HBC is a bit more with it.
- Holy shit those mutton chops
It’s not much, but it’s the closest the story gets to genuine characterisation and not just broad strokes “I want to do good” or “I am very upset by my situation” (by the way, the former is generally sung by the male characters, the latter by the way more passive female characters, but then again the original novel was published in 1862, so we’ll move on from equality because I could have a field day).
Those characters are not the two that the story is about. Which brings me neatly onto another narrative flaw: what on earth is the story about? I’m not suggesting that all stories need to have a single through-line, I just saw Cloud Atlas which is way crazier than this in it’s plotting and works far far better. It does at least have a central idea, it is a story with something to say. Is Les Mis a story of redemption? Or teenage love? Or revolution? Or ghosts? I can’t tell.
iThe only character we have any sympathy for is Éponine, for some reason in love with him from Birdsong. But she’s not developed beyond her basic desires – we know she’s in love with someone and they’re not in love with her. This is it, we’re never shown why she’s in love with him, because he’s even more of a non-character. These people do not feel real, and it is not because they sing all the time, it is because any sense of characterisation has been abandoned for sweeping, epic imagery and music.
This helpfully segues to the latter, smaller section: Poorly made film.
A lot has been talked about the style of filming, the close ups, the live-recordings of the vocals, and the reason why is also the reason it totally fails: Les Mis is a stage musical, and Tom Hooper wants to capture the intimacy and power of seeing a play performed live on stage. Key to this, he completely misunderstands why stage performances are intimate. It’s because the actors know you’re there, and not at all because you’re close to them.
In fact, you’re usually further away. I’ve never seen a stage actor up as close as the camera in Les Mis. What makes it intimate are those songs where they just say what’s on their mind for no reason – because they’re talking to you. You, the audience. You’re there with them, and they’re sharing their innermost truths, and this is where the connection comes from. It’s the key to a large amount of musical songwriting. When whatserface sings “I Dreamed A Dream,” she turns to you and sings it, here you’re just really close as she faces a mark off camera. It’s an intangible benefit of theatre that cannot be recreated in a film, and showcases their difference in the medium.
This would be like if someone put an omniscient narrator in all of Lord Of The Rings, to make it more like a book: completely, comically missing the point.
The one moment where the style works? That time Anne Hathaway takes on a client as a prostitute, because there is no music, and it works purely as a film. It’s as voyeuristic as the rest, but because the characters do not acknowledge your existence, as they are meant to in their big songs, it succeeds in making you feel extremely uncomfortable and powerless to stop it. It made me tense up in my chair, and feel more for the character than the last ten minutes of bombastic song.
Which is not a strike against bombastic song, it’s a strike against filming bombastic song as if the characters feel small and alone. Through the direction and shot choices, Hooper sabotages whatever ability to connect the film had, which is a shame.
And that’s my quick response to the challenge. Written in a rush, but that’s the whole point of said challenge, so I feel alright about that. It gets my point across, and if you disagree, and enjoy the story, then more power to you. Blog, out.
The points of the bullet variety that go on the end for fun:
- My two favourite “Les Mis songs” are this and this. Better than anything in the movie by a thousand miles.
- I’d like to point to The Operative from Serenity as a far better done version of Javert.
- I’m half way season 2 of The West Wing and it’s still amazing. Where can I vote for Bartlet?
- It’s freezing in England. My hands are super cold.