All about the music, for better and (mostly) for worse: Les Miserables (Tom Hooper, 2012)

lesmis

It’s funny. If you’d asked me, before, I saw Les Miserables, to name an element of Tom Hooper’s directorial style (and demanded that I give an answer longer than “Erm…”), I would have said that he has an intrusive enthusiasm for backgrounds and the space around the actors in the frame. Picture the moment early on in The Damned United where Clough and Taylor are watching their team train but the buildings in the distance behind them overwhelm the shot – or if you haven’t seen that one, I’m sure you won’t have any trouble bringing that wall in The King’s Speech to mind. However, in Les Miserables Hooper has seemingly countless close ups of the actors singing, during which there may be little else in the frame. For me, this had two effects.

The first is that the sheer frequency of these shots gave me a claustrophobic feeling in which I had little sense of the wider world in which the story takes place. In some scenes, characters appear unexpectedly and all I could think was Where did he come from? Too often, I didn’t have much of an idea of what lay outside each shot, or even what the sets looked like.

The second is that I was bored. When all the camera is showing is an actor singing, and you don’t like the song, it doesn’t matter very much how good the performance is. It’s still boring. A few bars into every song, I realised I wasn’t going to enjoy it and that I was doing to have to spend the next few minutes with Hooper preventing me from appreciating sets, costumes, dance moves, rhythmic editing, camera movements, or all the other things aside from the music that you could conceivably appreciate in a musical number. (Except when Russell Crowe sang his two songs. Hooper wants you to look at anything but Russell Crowe’s performance during those songs.) “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” in particular felt like an eternity.

I feel bad about saying this because I saw Les Miserables with people who enjoyed it a lot, but the emotional directness that Hooper was aiming for hardly got to me at all. I may have shed one tear during the second last scene. It really isn’t hard to make me cry. I just didn’t like the songs, so they had no power to move me.

Most musicals would not film a song in this way, and most non-musical films would not spend several minutes focusing on little more than an actor’s face while they deliver a monologue – and if they did, they probably wouldn’t do it this much because it would lose its impact. Imagine a drama that did this as often as Les Miserables. Though I’m certain that great exceptions do exist, it’d probably get dull, no matter how good the dialogue is, or who’s delivering it.

I’m not saying Hooper made bad choices. I admire him for trying to do something different with a musical. The genre (which I like in theory but hardly ever in practice) is badly in need of some new blood. I love the idea of directors trying to blend film and music in interesting ways. But much of the time, the focus in this film is on the actors’ faces, and on the songs. I don’t like the songs, so Hooper didn’t leave me much else to enjoy.

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