Les Miserables managed to beat out Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained at the Christmas Day box office, bringing in an estimated $17.5 million and setting records for both the highest opening day for a musical and the top weekday Christmas opening of all time. Several of the performances in the film — particularly Anne Hathaway’s gut-wrenching portrayal of poor, fallen Fantine and Hugh Jackman as the redeemed criminal, Jean Valjean — have been getting some serious Oscar buzz. Yet, Tom Hooper’s epic adaptation of the beloved Broadway musical currently has a 63% fresh rating among top critics on Rotten Tomatoes. So what gives?
Interestingly, most of the criticism leveled at the film has to do with Hooper’s direction. Among the gripes: his decision to have cast members sing their numbers live, and quite frequently, in very intimate closeup. “Alas, like so many innovators, Hooper falls rather too much in love with his innovation,” writes Christopher Orr at The Atlantic. “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…”
Meanwhile, Ann Hornaday at the Washington Post feels the production is “weighed down by a crushing sense of bombast and self-importance,” a problem with the original score that’s exacerbated by Hooper’s “unimaginative staging and camera work, which tend to underline, italicize and boldface every emotional beat.” As she writes, “It’s all Very Big, All the Time — which may serve the show’s die-hard fans well, but may not persuade those who have been immune to its hysterically pitched charms until now.”
New York Times critic Manohla Dargis has a similar issue with Hooper’s work, calling him a “maddening busybody behind the camera” whose maximalist approach to the material takes the musical “from spectacle toward bloat.” Specifically:
…his inability to leave any lily ungilded — to direct a scene without tilting or hurtling or throwing the camera around — is bludgeoning and deadly. By the grand finale, when tout le monde is waving the French tricolor in victory, you may instead be raising the white flag in exhausted defeat.”
Then there’s this equally damning take, from THR’s Todd McCarthy:
Director Tom Hooper has turned the theatrical extravaganza into something that is far less about the rigors of existence in early 19th century France than it is about actors emoting mightily and singing their guts out. As the enduring success of this property has shown, there are large, emotionally susceptible segments of the population ready to swallow this sort of thing, but that doesn’t mean it’s good.
Yowza. Finally, this zinger from TIME critic Richard Corliss seems to sum up how many critics feel about the director rather nicely:
Tom Hooper’s problem is soiling good projects with bad direction. Even if his Les Misérables wins as many Oscars as The King’s Speech did, it’s a habit he really needs to correct.
So! Did you see Les Miz? If so, what did you think? Do you agree that Hooper’s work behind the camera upstaged his actors?