Hollywood studio mogul Jack Warner pioneered a unique rating system for films he “reviewed”. Warner’s method of critical appraisal directly related the cinematic experience to the number of times he felt an inclination to go to the bathroom. A zero or one piss picture? Tolerable. A three piss picture? Forget about it.

It’s probably a good thing Warner is not alive to sit through director Tom Hooper’s adaptation of beloved novel-cum-musical-cum-musical-movie Les Misérables. He would never have made it through.

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It’s not just Les Misérables’ hefty 157 minute running time that will have general audiences running back and forth to the bathroom. It’s how Hooper has managed to suck the life out of a magnificent production, draining the blood of bread-pilfering Jean Valjean into a port-a-loo of tedium.

It’s not for want of trying, or laziness, or even skill. But decisions Hooper made in the mammoth task of bringing this musical to the big screen — one of them to shoot gargantuan portions of the production no more than three feet from his actors, on, indefensibly, handheld cameras — stacked the deck against him. The resulting film is weirdly lethargic, as if the bulk of it were gleaned from footage of rehearsals.

It would have been fascinating to see how Alan Parker (Bugsy Malone, The Wall, Evita) would have handled the material. But Hooper’s last film was the critical and popular juggernaut The King’s Speech and when you’re hot, you’re hot. He could have pitched a remake of Water World and studio executives wouldn’t have been able to reach for the chequebook fast enough.

All begins pleasantly enough in Les Mis, with images of CGI rendered ships looming in 19th century French backdrops and a ratty-faced Hugh Jackman as Valjean in the foreground, yanking a huge rope while singing a sad song about being a slave. A stout Russell Crowe watches on as Inspector Javert, chiming in with smug lines and a singing voice that takes some getting used to.

Valjean is the ultimate “steal a loaf of bread to feed my dying family” character who spends serious time in the slammer and, inspired by forgiveness bestowed upon him by a generous priest, becomes a wealthy factor owner and mayor of a prefecture in Northern France. He takes pity on a desperately poor woman, played by a rakishly thin Anne Hathaway, because a) her character has a young girl who needs financial support and b) for months Hathaway ate nothing but two strips of oatmeal paste a day to prepare for the role, only to be greeted with headlines such as this.

Years later, Valjean becomes a player in a quasi French revolution, which in Hooper’s hands looks as simple as a bunch of layabouts who stock clumps of broken furniture together and yell at the police — a sort of proto Occupy movement. All the while Javert chases him until the bitter, dramatic, back-breaking oh-won’t-it-end.

“He knows his way in the darkness,” sings Russell Crowe, on a cathedral rooftop into a starry night sky, and evidently so do his colleagues. They had little choice. Cinematographer Danny Cohen’s photography is improbably dark, a palette of muted colours that looks like his lens filmed through a thin sheet of black cellophane. With extensive use of mid-shots and close-ups, Hooper’s visual arrangements are depressingly contained, and the effect this has on the production is crushing.

When Samantha Barks, as Eponine, performs a beautiful rendition of the sublime ‘On My Own’, the scene — shot at night, with rain falling down a lonesome street — should have been magic. Instead it plays with virtually no sense of location, sumptuous or slummy or otherwise, which evokes a sense of not so much being there as being in her face.

Theatre, of course, is observed from a distance, the set and the cast’s spatial relationship always in perspective. Not so in Les Misérables, which creates an odd dichotomy: a technical landscape that feels homely versus a dramatic scope that feels — or should feel — spectacularly histrionic.

And when the film does get its set photography broadly right, its lethargic mood neuters it. You know there is something fundamentally wrong with a film when an entertainer as boisterous as Sacha Baron Cohen performs a song as catchy as Master of the House and the scene feels as flat as a steam-pressed sheet of A4.

Hugh Jackman and rising star Eddie Redmayne (Like Minds, My Week With Marilyn) as rebel leader Marius are on another level to the rest of the performers; the right one, the one with a sense of all-in spirit and arms-a-flailing huff and puff. What a shame both end up with mud on their faces. Literally.

After the brouhaha surrounding the French furniture blockade comes to a head and Javert’s famous goodbye fails to rouse — but does offer an unintentionally amusing sound effect — Hooper comes very close to getting the emotional tone right for the end.

That’s the very end, the epilogue, in which Jackman imitates the look of a man who’s chased a slab of beer with a shot of heroin and just discovered he somehow lost a kidney. But by then it’s way too late. The bathroom break count, real or metaphoric, has soared towards double digits, and the ghost of Jack Warner can be felt, somewhere in the distance, pressing the flush button.

Les Misérables Australian theatrical release date: December 26, 2012. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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