I have a complicated relationship with this film. It was my first exposure to the musical, which I love in all its messy glory, and it’s what led to me picking up the original novel, which I absolutely adore. It’s completely sung-through, an adaptation approach I like, and it has a handful of great performances that find the appropriate borderline between iconic and intimate. I’ll even defend Russell Crowe’s singing, the most common criticism of the film, because I think his refusal–inability?–to pour in a lot of emotion works well for the character, one so tightly circumscribed by adherence to law and morality that he receives the realization of mercy as an injury.
On the other hand, you have Tom Hooper, of whose directorial choices I have an active, venomous hatred. He turns the film into a series of tight close-ups, almost none of which work. This is a story fundamentally about the consideration of souls; Hooper only gives us faces, hardly any of them captured with the kind of revealing rawness or openness that would give you the soul. Instead, it feels like a two-fold reminder: 1) Hey, look at these major Hollywood actors! and 2) Look how bravely I’m ignoring conventional wisdom about opening up a stage production! He makes aesthetic choices–and bad ones–when he needs to make emotional ones, but that’s arguably bearable because when he does, on occasion, attempt to use his aesthetics in service to the story, he does so in a way that fundamentally misunderstands the story. He has a predetermined morality like he has a predetermined style–which “Tom Hooper Directs Your Favourite Movie” aptly summarizes–and he doesn’t so much choose projects that that style suits as take material and crush it to fit his mold.
What makes this adaptation watchable is the performances and the fact that a little bit of the story’s greatness unavoidably bleeds through, despite Hooper’s best efforts to stylize the life out of it.
For Les Mis discussion untainted by my hatred of Tom Hooper, our own Michael Guarnieri has a great consideration of the various Valjeans here.