It’s a remarkable musical number, played out almost entirely in a single continuous shot: a tight closeup on Anne Hathaway’s tortured face. She sings the rough, honest version of Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream”; every tear that rolls down her gaunt cheeks clearly communicates her pain, her despair, her suffering, her loss, her shattered hopes. And director Tom Hooper refuses to cut away, to give the viewer any reprieve from the flood of emotions–thus restoring meaning, context, and power to what had, after decades of continuous performance, become just another pretty song.
I’d be tempted to say that this approach is the future of cinematic musicals–no more boring “filmed plays,” no more pantomiming to prerecorded tracks, no more chopping up the actors’ performances to compensate for a lack of action–but it quite frankly doesn’t always work for Hooper, either. The Oscar-winning filmmaker ends up using the aesthetic as a crutch, likely necessitated by his bold decision to record most of the vocals live on-set. The lack of traditional scene coverage quickly becomes distracting, then frustrating–especially during the big, full-cast numbers, such as “One Day More.”
At the end of the day, Les Miserables is a fascinating experiment, but as a movie, it feels only half complete–a 160-minute-long trailer, or the highlight reel version of a great story. I wouldn’t call it an utter disappointment (such is the strength of the source material), but I wouldn’t include it on my (hypothetical) “Best of 2012” list, either.
[Originally written December 30, 2012.]