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Set against the backdrop of 19th-century France, Les Misérables tells the story of ex-prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), hunted for decades by the ruthless policeman Javert (Russell Crowe), after he breaks parole. When Valjean agrees to care for factory worker Fantine’s (Anne Hathaway) young daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), their lives change forever. (From Universal’s official synopsis)

 Les Misérables
I know very little about Victor Hugo’s Les Misérable other than the basic story, which I learned by seeing Bille August’s 1998 film version – the one without any singing. It’s not a very good movie, so my affection for the story is limited. I have no connection to the material and thus have no reason to resent any adaptation. I am, however, not a fan of director Tom Hooper, so anything with his name on it is automatically suspect in my book. Hooper’s coming out party from the no man’s land of BBC programming was a surprise Oscar sweeping hit, The King’s Speech, a film that shook off none of the director’s TV movie visual limitations. King’s Speech isn’t a bad film, but it is a film that directs itself, thanks to a simple, straight-forward screenplay and a handful of strong performances, including co-producer Geoffrey Rush, who probably could’ve done just as well as Hooper as director. The only thing Hooper really brought to the table was a series of bizarrely off-center camera compositions, which kind of covered his lack of scope or scale. One would assume that, given a chance to shine on a proper budget with popular, oft-adapted material, he would break out of his minimalist, ‘quirky’ style.

Apparently, there are at least 13 film adaptations of Les Misérable and, more recently, a French TV miniseries and a Japanese animated series. That’s one or more per decade since the advent of the motion picture. This version is set apart, because it is the first big screen version of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical version of Hugo’s novel. An adaptation of the musical had been in development for decades, alongside other Broadway hits from the era, like The Phantom of the Opera and Cats. Hooper reportedly pursued this project, leading one to believe he had something special in mind for the material. Alas, it’s just more of the same. His wildly unattractive over-direction does not lend itself to an epic musical production. In fact, everything I didn’t like about The King’s Speech is compounded by movement – something he’s clearly unprepared to deal with. Where the stillness of his last film more or less required a bit of visual flair, this material is already plenty kinetic, brimming with the melodrama of stage acting and a massive cast of busy extras. The amazing production values can be seen peeking at the viewer from around the peripherals of the ridiculously confined, oddly fish-eyed compositions. Every so often, we’re given a glimpse of a fantastically over-done special effect and realize someone, somewhere has a slice of David Lean in their heart, but the man in charge wanted us to stare into the pores on his actor’s noses, not the beautifully crafted sets and locations.

 Les Misérables
Hooper’s editing practices are also a huge problem, visually speaking. Every shaky, hand-held, hyper-close-up is compounded by a series of cuts that don’t allow any of the compositions to sit still long enough to absorb (Cut! Reverse angle! Cut! First angle! Cut! Dutch variation of the first angle!). It’s as frenetic as the fights in a Jason Bourne movie, which is an intriguing idea for maybe one or two pieces (it works well for the terrifying delirium of ‘Lovely Ladies’), but is shatteringly stupid when drawn over 158 minutes. The story editing works pretty well, at least for someone like me that isn’t attached to specific moments and story rhythms. Well, it works pretty well for a while – eventually it breaks down like almost everything else in the movie. The sprinting pace does begin to numb around the 30-minute mark, which is a good place for ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ to hit and give Anne Hathaway her big Oscar moment (it’s a good one too; I have no problem with her winning the statue). The placement is so mechanical, though, that I assume it was meant to be something of a climax, but it feels more like a nice, deep breath before Hooper and his screenwriters tear back into the thick and chunky plot. Other breaks from the pace, like the Thénardier’s introductory song, ‘Master of the House,’ sort of work separate from the rest of the film, but are generally tonally awkward and take up valuable time as the story begins to focus on the ‘chase’ (which made up the bulk of Bille August’s non-musical version).

Hooper did bring one important concept to this adaptation – he made the hard choice to capture all of the singing on-set. This isn’t as unheard of as the press materials would leave you to believe (Julie Taymor did it as recently as 2007, when she made Across the Universe), but it is unusual, especially on a film of this scale. Unfortunately, again, Hooper’s over-direction sort of ruins the incredible effort, or at least the visual component. The actors do greatly benefit from this approach, as do their performances. I’m a huge fan of the classic Hollywood approach to musicals and appreciate the glossy singing performances created in post, even those dubbed by singers that don’t appear on-screen. I also think that we are at a point in motion picture musicals where we can accept less than glossy singing from our actors, at least in some cases. I think the charm of the ‘natural’ singing performances found in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Phyllida Lloyd’s Mamma Mia justifies the fact that some of the actors are objectively ‘not good’ singers. The more ‘raw’ or ‘rock and roll’ sound seems to fit with Hooper’s rough-and-tumble, gutter trash approach. The problem then becomes that Hooper hired professional Broadway types to fill out the supporting cast. These people sing perfectly, but don’t emote on the same level as the more famous cast, creating an imbalance that makes folks like Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman look like weaker singers, while simultaneously making Samantha Barks and Aaron Tveit look like wooden actors.

 Les Misérables

Video


Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen (who was somehow nominated for Best Cinematography for The King’s Speech) shot Les Misérable on 35mm, seemingly for the sake of the grit it afforded them, clearly not for the sake of natural colours or image quality. This 1.85:1, 1080p transfer is as sharp and clear as the roaming, wiggling, unfocused camera will allow, which means that the close-ups look great and most everything else looks kind of blurry. Every nook and cranny of every actor’s face is razor cut with brilliant contrast levels. The bulk of the backgrounds are blobby shapes, but feature no notable low-level noise and smooth enough gradient blends. On those rare occasions where a wide-angle lens is utilized, the deeper-set textures and patterns match the sharpness of the foreground faces. The digital colour grading is pretty severe throughout the film and generally matches the palettes Hooper and Cohen set as their favourites with The King’s Speech. The basic palettes include a blue and orange variation for daylight scenes (though, of course, everything is heavily overcast throughout the film) and a sort of pea green and urine yellow mix. The base palettes are highlighted with a handful of richer hues, specifically two that appear on the French flag – red and blue (I didn’t think to see if the blue faded into black as the film progressed to match the colours of the revolutionaries’ flag, but that would be awfully clever). Black levels are deep and thick without muddying to many of the dark details (the folds of black clothing, for example), but many of the white levels are closer to very, very light blue than true white. The film grain is not avoided and dances throughout the backgrounds especially, but there are no major signs of digital compression or the edge haloes that sometimes accompany 35mm releases.

 Les Misérables

Audio


Being a musical, not to mention a musical that was made using a much-publicized on-set method, it’s not surprising that this DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack is given its biggest boost when people are singing and the orchestra is swelling. I did not realize until finally watching the film that famed composer Claude-Michel Schönberg had actually written additional music to fill out the downtime during this film version. The actors were recorded singing on set, which leaves their performances relatively unaltered and centered on the track. The sound isn’t perfect – there are inconsistencies in volume, hints of hiss, and noise-reduction effects – but that’s rather the point of the exercise. However, the orchestra was recorded in post and is given the usual multi-channel treatment it gets on any other major motion picture release. The full, 70-piece orchestra sound makes for a particularly rich and powerfully loud soundtrack. The pounding percussion and throbbing bass strings give the LFE plenty to handle, while the more treble-dependent instruments dance nicely throughout the channels. But the music doesn’t always sit alone; there are some aural embellishments that give the channels a little something extra to do. There’s generally no ambient noise apart from footsteps, closing doors, and the like, because the music fills the role of atmosphere. The directional cues revolve mostly around the special-effects-heavy establishing shots, specifically the movie-opening stormy, seaside boat-pulling sequence and the revolutionary battle scenes (though, even here, things are mostly music and lyric-based).

 Les Misérables

Extras


Extras begin with a commentary track from Tom Hooper. When I watched King’s Speech with the Hooper commentary, I compared his tone to that of a napping dog. This is more of the same. Hooper is a humourless, self-important commentator and any important production factoid or thematic discussion is drowned in droning, dignified-verging-on-pretentious rhythms. There are interesting bits concerning the career histories of supporting cast members, changes between the film and musical (and book, for that matter), and the technical practices (having never seen the musical, I was not aware of the differences between the fixed and free singing tempos), but this is mostly like sitting through a high school English class just before lunch. To his credit, Hooper doesn’t leave a lot of blank space and doesn’t directly repeat himself while focusing on scene-specific discussion. Someone might want to define ‘irony’ for him, though – he doesn’t appear to know what it means.

Up next is a whole subset menu entitled Les Misérables: A Revolutionary Approach that houses a series of behind-the-scenes featurettes, including:
  • The Stars of Les Misérables (11:10, HD), concerning the casting process, the extraordinary efforts taken by the actors, and their thoughts on the characters they play.
  • The West End Connection (8:20, HD), covering the members of the supporting cast and their ties to the musical – specifically Colm Wilkinson, who was the original Jean Valjean, and Samantha Barks, who came directly off the West End to star as Eponine.
  • Les Misérables on Location (9:10, HD), including finding real-world locations, choreography, production design, and cinematography.
  • Creating the Perfect Paris (3:50, HD), about designing and building the main stage’s set.
  • Battle at the Barricade (4:40, HD), concerning the process of filming the movie’s biggest action set-piece. It looks pretty impressive when the camera angles are actually wide enough to absorb it all.
  • Les Misérables: Singing Live (23:20, HD), the most substantial featurette, about the arduous process of recording singing live on a massive scale. This is all a bit technical, but also easily the most interesting thing on the entire disc.


 Les Misérables
One more featurette escapes the subheading. The Original Masterwork (11:10, HD) concerns Victor Hugo’s life and the writing of the original Les Misérables novel. Interview subjects throughout all of the featurettes include Hooper, producers Debra Hayward, Eric Fellner and Cameron Mackintosh, writer/composer/co-creator Claude-Michel Schönberg, writer/co-creator Alain Boublil, supervising location manager Camilla Stephenson, choreographer Liam Steele, musical director Stephen Booker, music supervisor Anne Dudly, production designer Eve Stewart, assistant director David Channing Williams, prop masters Terry Wood and Charles Lister, set designer Anna Lynch-Robertson, sound engineer Simon Hayes, on-set pianist Jennifer Whyte, professor of French studies at UCLA Laure Murat, director of the Victor Hugo museum Gerard Audinet, and actors Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Eddie Raymayne, Anne Hathaway, Samantha Barks, Amanda Seyfried, Colm Wilkinson, and a series of West End stage actors.
 
 Les Misérables

Overall


There’s a good movie somewhere in Les Misérables, but director Tom Hooper’s approach doesn’t work at all. The script could do with a bit of pruning, perhaps, but the central performances are pretty spectacular (if not weirdly mixed) and the production design is a gorgeous blend of hyper-realistic and impressionistic. The final product looks more like haphazardly edited outtake reel, as if the original footage was burned in a darkroom fire and the handheld coverage had to be used to complete the film. But hey, if you’re among the millions of people that enjoyed the film, you are certainly in for a treat with this Blu-ray release, which features a vivid 1080p transfer, a boisterous 7.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack, and a bevy of informative (self-important) extra features.

 Les Misérables
 Les Misérables

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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