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Photo Credit: Laurie Sparham

One of the stupidest decisions in the history of the Academy Awards was the coronation of Tom Hooper two years ago. For helming The King’s Speech, a perfectly forgettable (and rather appallingly photographed) bit of awards bait from the Weinstein Company, Hooper was elevated above contemporaries like David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, David O. Russell and the Coen Brothers.

Hooper, a BBC mainstay also known for directing HBO’s John Adams miniseries, did not take the honor lightly. He’s used his newfound clout to tackle an impossible mission—the long-awaited adaptation of the ever-running Les Misérables, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boubil’s stage production that has stymied filmmakers for the 27 years it has packed in more than 60 million happy customers. The financial success of this film is a foregone conclusion, as are the inevitable awards-season hosannas. This is regrettable because Les Misérables is nearly unwatchable.

“It’s like an exercise in how not to direct a film,” I jotted in my notes shortly after the screening. The showing was, of course, packed with studio-selected musical theater aficionados who stood and applauded after every number until the tedium set in, and even this handpicked crowd could no longer bother to feign enthusiasm.

For the benefit of anyone who hasn’t encountered Victor Hugo’s story in any of its incarnations over the years, Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean, a noble fellow who did too many years of hard labor after stealing a loaf of bread, which earns him the enmity of Russell Crowe’s inexhaustible tyrant cop, Javert. There’s much ado about Anne Hathaway’s Fantine, a willowy young lass with an infant daughter adrift in squalor and prostitution. Somewhere in this soap opera, the Paris Uprising of 1832 breaks out, and many, many, many years go by.

Schönberg and Boubil’s songs are catchy earworms—there’s a reason this thing has remained on stage for decades. But if there’s a more poorly directed film this year, I haven’t seen it. Hooper has a problematic affinity for wide-angle lenses and the handheld camera. Plus, somewhere along the way, a decision was made to make Les Misérables “gritty.”

Gone is any sense of Broadway spectacle. Instead we’re stuck with grimy, under-populated soundstage sets and shaky close-ups. Rather than embracing the artifice of musical theater, Hooper goes miles in the opposite direction. It’s deliberately drab, with the shaky camerawork and overall ugliness attempting to provide a “realistic” sensation, which seems awfully silly since every singer is backed up by an off-screen orchestra. It’s a disastrous approach to the material.

Hooper has about three shots in his repertoire, so every scene begins with the camera swooping down from a great height and then clinging nervously to the performers who are forced to sing entire numbers in off-kilter close-ups. For no apparent reason, Hooper often films with several feet of headroom, calling your attention to the empty top of the frame. He occasionally alternates this approach with shots that cut the actors off at the eyebrows. The movie looks like it is improperly projected, and yet these were deliberate choices.

Much has been made of the fact that the cast was recorded singing live on set, as opposed to lip-syncing pre-recorded tracks, as is the norm with movie musicals. This has become a selling point and would be downright revolutionary, if we all decided to pretend that Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love and James Brown’s number in The Blues Brothers never existed. Hooper keeps the camera locked into a fisheye view of everybody’s nostrils just to prove they’re really singing, goddamnit. But maybe he should have reconsidered and realized that uncut tracks of Russell Crowe hoarsely flubbing notes are “authentic” in the worst way possible.

Crowe will probably be singled out as the whipping boy, if only because, like Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia, he often sounds like a farm animal in the midst of strangulation. But besides an honest-to-gawd, jaw-dropping turn from Anne Hathaway, who outclasses everyone and drops the mike a half hour into this thing, Les Misérables is just plain lousy filmmaking.

This movie is constricted, claustrophobic and all around unpleasant watch. When newcomer Samantha Barks does her best to win us over with the karaoke staple “On My Own,” Hooper can’t even keep her head in the shot. This is an aesthetic crime.

Les Misérables 
Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks. Based on the novel by Victor Hugo. Adapted from the musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boubil. Screenplay by William Nicholson. Directed by Tom Hooper.