Les Misérables ★★

Hooper's screen adaptation of the celebrated French stage musical -- the version of which being performed in London is currently the longest-running musical production in the world -- is not really any more or less than exactly what you'd expect, your opinion of it undoubtedly tied to how you feel about having the characters in Victor Hugo's passionate, philosophical novel of poverty and exile in post-Revolution France belt out big production numbers and sing nearly every line between them. The very existence of the musical never sat well with me, but that's really for personal reasons best kept that way (I probably went into some detail when I reviewed Oliver!, which I feel the same way about although much more violently), because it may simply be a personal flaw that I can't accept "musical" as a good medium for cataloging human misery. Basically: know first of all that this could be the most imaginative, well-performed rendering of this musical and it still couldn't crawl above 2.5 for me, in the same way that the most passionately formed and presented Star Wars movie couldn't, because I find the material itself so unappealing.

So to be a bit more useful, taking Hooper's interpretation of the work on its own basis -- the actors do well enough; numerous writeups have characterized their singing as poor, but I didn't hear anything that sounded especially dire, and Anne Hathaway, Sacha Baron Cohen, Samantha Barks and Helena Bonham Carter all acquitted themselves rather well. Even Eddie Redmayne, so much more appealing when he isn't attempting to be a road company Daniel Day-Lewis, isn't bad. Russell Crowe is a terrible Jalvert, but that's no one's fault except ours for making him famous in the first place. The major problems, rather, are in Hooper's bizarre directorial choices; he's allergic to presenting any of his large numbers in wide shots, maybe because so many of the sets are ugly demo reels of CGI-assisted grime, so nearly all of the big numbers are played in close-up or in jarring shot-reverse-shot sequences. It's one of the most hideous-looking mainstream films I've ever seen, but judging by The King's Speech (which also "is what it is") and The Danish Girl (which makes this look like a masterpiece), that's really just Hooper's aesthetic... and in a strange way, with so much in the entertainment news about directors being driven off projects by financially overcautious producers, there's something pleasing about the fact that he managed to spew it all over such a prestigious, long-awaited Hollywood effort.

Apropos of nothing: I really like the telefilm of Les Miserables from the 1970s, with Anthony Perkins and Richard Jordan, which we watched in French class -- it inspired me to tackle the novel back then, though I was a bit too young to understand some of Hugo's commentary and skipped a good deal of it. One strange element of that version is that it actually dramatizes Valjean's initial stealing of the bread and resulting arrest, which gives it an epic sweep I admired enough that I've missed it in other versions, even though it's totally invented by the TV movie's screenwriter!