I was delighted to finally have the chance to catch Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables last night and despite a few significant missteps (e.g. Russell Crowe as Javert), I found it totally brilliant and engrossing. Nonetheless, I’ve been reading a bunch of criticism on the internet about Hooper’s directorial decisions, most pointedly regarding the look and sound of the film.

In Anthony Lane’s slam of the film in the New Yorker, Lane writes, “The actors were recorded live as they belted out the big numbers, and Hathaway, in particular, takes full advantage, turning in precisely the sort of performance, down to the last sniff, that she would be the first to lampoon on ‘Saturday Night Live.’” Over at The Atlantic, Christopher Orr writes, “The second or third time we watch a face fill the screen with notes tender or tragic, the effect is genuinely arresting. The 22nd or 23rd time…” Critics all over are having a ball blasting the unconventional directorial decisions made in the film. As someone who loved the movie, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on some of these decisions.

Les Misérables departs from traditional film/musical adaptations in a few dramatic ways. As noted above, the actors were recorded live on set, as opposed to syncing up with pre-recorded audio. At a very basic level, this means that the music simply does not sound as polished as it would be if it were recorded in a studio (in fact, while I love the film, I find its soundtrack in isolation to be basically unlistenable compared to, say, a studio or cast recording). Moreover, the effort that’s expended by the actors to belt their notes out is visible on screen in a way that is arguably distracting.

But I found the effect to be totally convincing. As Manohla Dargis writes, “It’s touching, watching performers like Ms. Hathaway and Mr. Redmayne giving it their all, complete with quavering chins and straining tendons.” There’s an immediacy to the musical numbers in Les Misérables that you just dont’ get with other musical films, because you instinctively understand that “what you see is what you get.” The human brain is pretty great at being able to grasp the subtle distinctions that separate a live performance from one that’s merely synced up (think of how bad most ADR still sounds these days!), and when Anne Hathaway is passionately gasping her way through “I Dreamed a Dream,” you know that you’re seeing and hearing the subtleties in the exact same performance.

In a BBC interview, director Tom Hooper explains this choice, saying, “The problem with using [pre-recorded music] is an actor is having to spend a lot of their brainpower in syncing up with what they did…Generally, if you’re an actor, if you’ve been working hard on a part, you’ll get to this place and you’ll be singing along to something you did two months ago and you’ll hate it. You’ll kind of think ‘Well, that’s what I did two months ago, but now my understanding of the part has grown.’ And you’re kind of stuck singing along to something that may be making you cringe…It sets up a kind of white noise in the actor’s head, which detracts from the actor’s performance.” This connection between actor and performance gives Les Misérables a power that cannot be denied.

As for the look of the film, Hooper eschewed the typical film/musical hybrid look that is evident in films such as Chicago or Nine. Instead he employs a wide-angle lens that’s constantly in motion, plus a shallow depth-of-field that’s constantly struggling to keep up with the actors’ movements. There are disadvantages to this approach, to be sure; part of the magic of musicals is gaining a visual appreciation for the choreography, the mise-en-scene. Hooper jettisons these goals completely and gives us an experience that’s distinctly cinematic. Rather than try to replicate the look and feel of a musical (and then possibly chopping it to bits), he decided to attempt an immersive experience, putting you right “on stage” with the actors. You may not appreciate it, but I’d argue you have to respect he’s going for something distinct and bold.

Overall, I thought Les Misérables was great. But I was even more excited by the fact that Hooper is taking chances in terms of how musical adaptations are performed and filmed.

Discuss: What did you think of the look and sound of Les Misérables?

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