On Hooper’s Les Misérables, or the importance of not being too earnest

Harry Baur in Les Miserables

What can you say about a film that you hoped to like but didn’t? That it was schmaltzy and sincere? That it had nice horses and a pretty heroine? Or should you admit that it made you want to move to the back to the multiplex and cast your eyes down, out of compassion for the actors’ dignity?

The one thing I learned from sitting through Tom Hooper’s 2012 remake of Hugo’s 1862 novel, is that earnestness can be overdone. Sincerity fascinates, but only when it motivates action toward an admirable end, such as, say, bringing justice against people who commit war crimes. But sincerity for its own sake is, well, embarrassing.

Watching Les Misérables, I felt like a stranger who stumbled into a school play in a rich neighborhood. The sets were gorgeous (if unFrench), the costumes were well-made (check out the stitching!), and the actors had shiny white teeth and good haircuts (even Fantine’s Pixie looked cute). The only problem was, the actors are not my relatives, and I do not care how hard they were trying. Plus, they kept looking at me! Every view was a close-up of those poor actors whose lips, dental work, and nose hair were available for scrutiny. Not to mention their poor voices, quite clearly strained by the demanding score. What was Hooper thinking?! (More to the point, what was Russell Crowe thinking?!)

While waiting for the show to be over, I did make one significant discovery, however: Eddie Redmayne bears an uncanny resemblance to Jerry Mathers, star of the 1950s sitcom, Leave it to Beaver! It was their sincerity that gave it away. But wait, Beaver’s freckle-faced goodness was imbued with an impish sense of humor. And some episodes of Leave it to Beaver were truly suspenseful. (Who can forget when Beaver was stranded in that giant Teacup!) Sorry about that, Jerry.

"Hick" Portraits - 2011 Toronto Film FestivalJerry Mathers

But I’m mostly sorry for those of you who’ve actually read and love Les Misérables. Instead of heading to the multiplex, I suggest you check out Raymond Bernard’s 1934 version, with a stunning Jean Valjean played at his earthiest best by Harry Baur. (Available in the Criterion collection). Who needs a remake with this film on hand?

2 thoughts on “On Hooper’s Les Misérables, or the importance of not being too earnest

  1. But is it possible to out-earnest Victor Hugo, or is this the very treatment he deserves? At any rate, thanks for sparing some of us the 2 hours and 37 minutes. The trailer had me laughing at inappropriate times. Destined to be a popular theme-park attraction by next summer?

    1. I have to admit you make a good point, Kirk. As much as I appreciate the politics of Les Mis, Hugo’s style emphatique does get a bit tiresome after a thousand pages or so. Speaking of politics, I’d like to acknowledge that the positive allusion to the republican spirit, via the revolution of 1848 portrayed at the end of Hooper’s film, was a pleasant surprise. (It does not reflect the novel, but it is nevertheless worthy of praise.) Thanks to my friend Greg Vandenbroucke for pointing that out.

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