Les Misérables had all-star actors, emotional renditions of some of the best songs in musical theater, and stunning, elaborate sets and locations, so it’s impressive that the detail all the critics chose to focus on was the cinematography.
The movie made use of long, very close up takes which made a number of critics and viewers uncomfortable. This Slate review is a good example.
I personally thought the filming choices, though bold, were perfectly appropriate.
When you make a book as dense and long as Les Misérables (not to mention a book covering so many years) into a musical in the first place, it’s a big challenge to maintain the scope of the story, which derives its power from being set against the big and dramatic backdrop of French revolution, while also allowing enough time to really get to know the characters, whose internal struggle makes that backdrop worthwhile.
Focus in too much, cut too much out, and you lose the scope and grandeur of the story. Pan too far out and the story becomes cluttered and confusing, and you stop caring about its heroes.
But the beauty of the musical is that it uses its form to great effect in making up for its own deficiencies. You don’t have time to know the characters as well as you do in the novel. But what you lose in fleshed-out development over time, you make up for in the kind of emotional connection you can make in a song. Maybe we only get five minutes with Fantine, but we get “I Dreamed a Dream” in those five minutes. Musical theater is not as subtle an art as the novel — it establishes character and emotion quickly and flashily.
I think the film followed this tradition of using all the tricks of its own form to make up for the deficiencies that that form introduces. Moving from a stage production to a film did necessitate some cuts, but director Tom Hooper was able to pull even more emotion, intimacy and connection out of the songs by making bold cinematic decisions — having the actors sing live and lingering on their faces in long shots.
Meanwhile, he also used the pull-back effectively a number of times, to really place the action in its larger context — like pulling back from the barricade to show how truly alone the characters were in the city, something that certainly could never be accomplished on stage.
Les Misérables is a sprawling story with many different characters and locales, but it has a simple, essential tale at its heart. It begins and ends with Jean Valjean, and he and his nemesis Javert are the heart of the story. Even more specifically, it’s a story about how we respond to grace. Valjean is saved by the grace of a priest, and it shapes everything else he does — helping Fantine, taking in Cosette, saving Marius. Javert is saved by Valjean’s grace, but he can’t handle it. It offends his sense of justice so much that it tears him apart.
The first “uncomfortable” close-up in the film is on Valjean, in the soliloquy wherein he first responds to the priest’s rescue. Song and scene are mirrored several times throughout the film — when Valjean decides to turn himself in, and of course when Javert responds, in opposite manner, to Valjean’s grace.
But I only found the close-up uncomfortable for a few moments. After that I found myself invited to engage with Hugh Jackman on a level that cinema seldom makes me feel. And I found that he looked less like a movie star and more like a real human with real human pain.
The songs and the cinematography bring us into the characters’ souls at these critical junctures. Although some people might have found it jarring to be so close, or to move so quickly from close to far-away shots, I found it to be raw, and real, and very appropriate to Les Misérables — a story about human souls caught up in, and somehow rising above, human conflicts.