Do you hear the people weep? Tom Hooper's follow-up to The King's Speech is a honking disaster.
With the release of Tom Hooper's nut-smashingly awful Les Misérables, we may collectively rejoice in the fact that the yardstick for cinematic art in 2013 has been set so low, that the future – any future! – will look like a rolling cascade of plump, rainbow-coloured, parfum-infused rose petals by comparison.
Cinema will literally have to find new and exciting ways of being awful in order to trump Les Misérables at its own game. But the very act of searching for innovations in the field of awfulness will then bestow those films with a spark that will automatically make them more interesting and artistically vital than Hooper's. It's lose-lose whichever way you slice it. Bon chance indeed.
Aimed solely at errant typing pools, escapist dilettantes and moneyed dowagers for whom a visit to the cinema is one pigeon-step away from spending the afternoon at a horse meat abattoir, Les Misérables is little more than logic-bothering roundelay in which a company of slumming A-list luvvies appear to have entered into a hilarious, behind-the-scenes pact to see who can make the vein on their forehead bulge the furthest. It's a masterclass in snot acting.
This is Hooper's heroic second act following The King's Speech, the drastically overrated tea-time awards magnet which, nonetheless, looks like L'Avventura when placed next to this. It carries over some of the worst directorial excesses from that earlier film and explodes them to lapel-shaking levels. The movement of a camera can be a wondrous, sensuous thing when done precisely and tactfully. Here, the camera is either forced into people's faces for claustrophobic, boringly-framed close-ups, or fired around the place like it's attached to a remote-control helicopter.
Intended as a horn-parping historical treatise on love and death, faith and hope, revenge and forgiveness, it actually comes across as a bizarre, quasi-surreal tale about how two men keep randomly bumping into one another upon the pristinely cobbled Parisian streets, even though one has dedicated his entire adult life to evading capture by the other. It sounds like something a mildly-concussed Luis Buñuel might have concocted after accidentally catching the trailer of Spielberg's Duel in an Andalusian dive bar. Except that might have accidentally been good.
Perennial whining do-gooder Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and the showtune T1000 on his tail, Javert (Russell Crowe), sing in each other's faces instead of trading physical blows. They bellow and shout and wail and emote. They clench their fists and curse the skies. They act. This is not a film about crime and punishment, this is a film about actors acting. It's selfish. It has no faith in its images and no faith in the idea that its audience might saviour the sweet elixir of mild ambiguity.
Anne Hathaway as cruelly-unbraided seamstress-turned-grizzling grot prossie Fantine gifts the film with its gruelling nadir, a single-take torch song which wholly ignores the sentiments spoken of the song so that we may bathe in this tragic heroine's gushing torrent of crocodile tears. The hysterical, near-pornographic emotional tenor achieved by this scene is indicative of the film as a whole, eschewing any chance of subtlety at every contrived turn in favour of aggressively stool-ducking the audience into its saccharine sheep dip.
The entire story of Les Misérables hinges on the fact that, as a poverty-stricken youngster, Valjean was nabbed and imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread and is thus condemned to a life of servitude to the state. In short, he is punished for the crime of being born working class, a noble pauper hounded by the puffy-chested authority figure who lives to uphold the crooked pillars of justice.
And yet the depiction of working class characters in the film is largely repulsive, presenting Valjean as an anomalous luminary among a rogue's gallery of honking, wart-faced cretins. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter play the Thénardiers, a grotesque vision of bottom-end upward mobility who portend the notion that once a callous, filth-encrusted, money-obsessed commoner, always a callous, filth-encrusted, money-obsessed commoner. They do sing a jolly song, mind.
Its baffling, contradictory politics aside, the film (and the stage show's) central crime is its consistent recourse to easy manipulation, often with little rhyme or reason. The cruel fate of apple-cheeked cockney urchin Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) seems inserted purely to get a cheap rise in a moment of busy plot mechanics.
And it's so, so boring. There's been many a screed bemoaning the supposedly inflated runtime of this year's clutch of Oscar hopefuls, all of which assume that a long film is instantly a boring one. But this one borders on the unbearable, as its inexplicable, and then–and then–and then plot lumbers (a little like this review?) on and on and on.
Now read what director Tom Hooper had to say to LWLies about the making of his musical epic.
Hardly an adventurous or surprising follow-up from Tom Hooper to his Oscar-hoarding The King's Speech.
Like being trapped in Disney jail with the kids from Fame. For five consecutive life sentences.
Let's just say this one didn't quite work for us.