Last year we lost Ken Russell, one of the most singular and important talents cinema ever produced. He was never given credit for his huge body of work, his breathless style (he was the first person to truly run with his camera), his iconoclastic tearing away of convention and bastions of taste and political correct discourse, or his love of art. He was an artist who brought something to film and who paid tribute to the other artforms that made his life feel richer. Many people say he never surpassed his work at the BBC making films about the likes of Debussy and Isadora Duncan. While those films are fantastic and important, it wasn't until he discovered color film and had real money at his disposal that he could fully spread his wings. When he moved to major releases, he made one masterpiece after another: Women In Love, The Boyfriend, The Music Lovers, Savage Messiah, The Devils, Mahler and Lisztomania. Ken proved too flamboyant for most but it'd take someone willfully blind not to recognize that here was a talent unlike anything cinema had yet seen. Years in the wilderness following his last great success, Tommy, allowed everyone to ignore that he invented a new cinematic language and lit a fire under the british film industry.
And now, a year after his death and nearly 40 years after Tommy comes Les Miserables. Ken Russell's mother used to have a rubric for films of interest to her. Was it 'A British Picture'? This meant stodgy, stiff and traditional; bad jokes; poorly functioning marriages, cross-dressing, Carry On, Noel Coward. One steered clear of a British picture. Les Miserables is a british picture. Every fan of Russells knows where those steadicam shots come from, where the mixture of high camp and prestige production value was born. And yet no one, least of all the director, seems aware that they're making a Ken Russell film. Imagine it. Or...well, I'm sure you don't have to as there seem fewer people on earth who haven't seen this movie than have. I'd wager more people have seen this than have seen a single Ken Russell movie. Which is why it's ok for most that Les Mis is just The Music Lovers by way of Tommy. Hooper, of course, seems to have forgotten to mention his debt to the onetime Enfant Terrible, presumably embarrassed that he'd stoop to something so low culture to make his big Oscar bait bash. And yet every poorly chosen angle and bull-in-a-china-shop tracking shot drips with his influence, even if he doesn't fully get why Ken did all that; a song shot entirely in Helena Bonham Carter's hair betrays his cluelessness. If he didn't study Russell's films, he's stolen by osmosis. But frankly considering that Russell Crowe is the only person capable of giving Oliver Reed's performance in Tommy for our times (He'd just done his best Reed or Richard Harris in The Man With The Iron Fists, after all), I find it laughable that Hooper has somehow avoided Ken's work. This is the sort of thing Ken went into directing to rebel against. Despite being set in France, only one actor even bothers with the right accent. Bad jokes spring up between tonally incoherent songs and the editing ranges from inappropriate to completely insane. The film moves at just as rapid a clip as Russell during his most lyrical passages (the whole film could be an extended riff on the opening scene or any of the big production numbers in The Music Lovers) yet never slows down to get to know the characters. Anne Hathaway is dead before you get to know her, so one can hardly be moved by her big song. It hardly qualifies as a show-stopper if the show is this tattered and weightless. The film is in a hurry to go nowhere. By the time the story has stopped spinning in circles (what in the world do some of these songs accomplish? "Master of the House" is a great song, but what purpose does it serve?) Hugh Jackman vanishes from the story and when he returns, the film doesn't seem to have a place for him anymore. Russell vanished into flights of song and dance or surreal asides to tell the story; to show the world of the characters. Hooper flits across it like a demented fairy surveying a world he doesn't seem to understand, cutting every 2 seconds to some other part of the world to show off the production design and make-up.
Musicals typically get away with the oft-remarked problem of people simply bursting into song by being theatrical. No one in the world would mistake Guys & Dolls or Top Hat for reality; that was the point. If the Ginger Rogers or Marlon Brando brought depth to their characters, it sold the emotion and romance, not the world. You needn't buy their respective versions of Italy or New York, simply that Fred or Marlon would do whatever it takes to make good in the eyes of their leading ladies. Stripped of an overtly cinematic approach to its theatrical source and criminally featuring not a single dance number worthy of the name, it just sits there, even if the camera and editor can't help but jump all over the place like kids with espresso. The best it can manage is weirdly off-putting asides like the piccolo that plays whenever a child character sings, even if it's in the middle of an ostensibly dramatic scene. This doesn't help sell anything, it just fucks up the tone. A cardinal sin when the film pretends to be gripping historical drama, what with the shooting of children and whores having their teeth pulled out. Everyone sings angelically, acts enormously, feels deeply and smiles hugely. A haircut and dirt make-up are evidently choices enough to sell the sorrow of these characters because the filmmaking sure doesn't have anything to say on the subject. The singing is just a comforting blanket to audiences keen not to feel anything so distasteful as sorrow or discomfort. The ultimate alienation device. When the most sympathetic character in the film dies, it's very difficult to take her death seriously as no one has stops singing in the same indefatigably jaunty manner and they keep right on going when she's gone. After all, the dead routinely rise to sing big numbers, so how or why should we care who kicks the bucket? The apparent joy of each character is irrepressible even when they're bleeding to death or throwing themselves in the Seine. And this is during the French revolution mind you. In a movie called Les Miserables! It doesn't have the decency to be eccentric; it wants to be heartbreakingly bold simply by implication, but won't fess up to its devices. Shooting a film of a musical about the death of thousands takes the sort of bravery Ken Russell had in spades. But having no ambition, to be content with making the most rote and by the numbers British film, with every expected beat sung instead of spoken, is far worse than if they'd gone out on a limb and failed. Nothing is risked, nothing is gained. Except Academy Awards. Rest in peace, Ken. We need you more than you could ever know.