What is a film director’s job? Ask a number of different directors and you’ll get very different answers. For some, working with the actors is an integral part of the job; for others (such as Ridley Scott), acting is solely the responsibility of the actors and the director’s there to focus on the look and feel of a film. (At which point the cinematographer may be going, “What about me?”) Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:
Generally, a film director controls a film’s artistic and dramatic aspects, and visualizes the script while guiding the technical crew and actors in the fulfillment of that vision.
Remember Tom Hooper? He directed The King’s Speech, the HBO miniseries John Adams – and Les Misérables, the film version of the Boubil and Schönberg musical. Based on all of these, I am confident in saying that Hooper does a magnificent job at getting great performances out of actors. I am equally confident in saying that, at least according to the Wikipedia definition as well as my own understanding of what a film director does, Tom Hooper is one of least talented successful directors of recent times.
I don’t want to get into the whole discussion of Les Misérables‘ recording the actors’ singing on set. I don’t even mind (well, not all that much) that Russell Crowe can’t really sing and that he butchers Javert’s songs in the film. When there’s a choice between flawless singing and acting at the expense of voice, I tend to favour the latter, but then musical fans may wonder what’s the point of having your actors singing if the acting gets in the way of a good tune.
What I do want to get into is Hooper’s downright obnoxious use of the camera. Already in John Adams, a handsomely produced, beautifully acted, intelligently written series, the director kept throwing in jarring dutch angles, their main effect being that they drew attention to themselves. It didn’t feel like a conscious use of a technique in order to achieve a certain effect; instead it felt like a directorial gimmick, a distracting flourish with little to no relation to what was going on on the screen.
This obnoxious use of ostentatious techniques is taken to extremes in Les Misérables. Practically the whole film is shot in hand-held, dizzying close-ups – and it’s too intimate. It’s too intrusive. And where it’s effective for a few minutes, it turns into a freakshow – less a method of putting as little distance between the acting and the audience and more a “Check out the tears! The snot! The blood! It’s all real!” Apart from the technique becoming almost exhibitionist when it’s used in 90% of all the shots, there’s no modulation, no rhythm to the images. Crowd scenes, intimate moments of soul-searching, Hooper treats them all the same, to the point where you have to wonder what the hell the director’s doing.
The sad thing is, for every moment where Hooper’s technique is effective there are ten scenes where it’s irritating and distracting. We’re supposed to feel with the characters, and the poor actors are acting their hearts out, but the camera keeps putting us uncomfortably close, so that scenes tip into becoming embarrassing or involuntarily comical. When the film is at its worst, what should come across as earnest and heartfelt becomes pushy and needy. As a result, the film rarely works as the grand spectacle it was written as, and it rarely works as intimate drama. Mr Hooper, seriously – techniques should be geared towards what the film needs, they shouldn’t be an affectation or a nervous tic. You do great when it comes to getting performances from your actors… and then you shoot yourself in the foot with everything else. Do me a favour and read this before you make your next film, ‘kay?
And serious, man… Fuck those Dutch angles!