Les Misérables (1998)

Les Misérables
Director: Bille August
Screenplay: Rafael Yglesias (based on the novel by Victor Hugo)
Stars: Liam Neeson (Jean Valjean), Geoffrey Rush (Inspector Javert), Uma Thurman (Fantine), Claire Danes (Cosette), Reine Brynolfsson (Beauvoir), Hans Matheson (Marius)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 1998
Country: USA
For those who have seen the Broadway musical version of "Les Misérables" (and after more than a decade of performances, I know there are many of you out there), Bille August's film rendition of Victor Hugo's sweeping French novel will seem very familiar. The screenplay, by novelist Rafael Yglesias ("Fearless"), follows almost the exact same trajectory as the musical, which maintains the major plot points of Hugo's 1862 novel, but pares away many of the subplots and political dimensions.

At roughly two hours and twenty minutes, "Les Misérables" feels much longer than it actually is. The story itself spans almost three decades and numerous major characters, but that is not why the film feels long. Instead, it is because August never manages to build any real momentum or urgency to pull the story along-- it's more like he wades through it, moving from one set-piece to the next with deliberate care. There are few moments of real tension and little comic relief; although the movie is beautifully filmed and performed with vigor and intensity by the principle actors, "Les Misérables" never really gets going.

The story begins in France around 1815. Liam Neeson stars as Jean Valjean, a man who has just been released from nineteen years of prison for stealing a loaf of bread. At this point he is a gruff, bitter man; he repays a kind priest who offers him food and shelter by stealing his silver. When the priest forgives him and allows him to keep the silver, Valjean decides to become a new man. He breaks his parole and assumes another identity, later becoming a successful factory owner and the mayor of a small town.

However, Valjean's past is always following close behind him in the form of the relentless Inspector Javert (Geoffrey Rush), an inhuman, no-nonsense police official who remembers Valjean from his days in prison. Javert is the kind of man who lives only within the strict parameters of the law. There is no gray area, no room for negotiation or mercy. Even though Valjean has turned his life around and treats all his workers with dignity and respect, Javert sees him as only one thing: a convict who has broken his parole and is therefore subject to punishment.

Most of the film details Valjean's lifelong quest to live in peace without Javert discovering him. Things become complicated when Valjean takes on the responsibility of Cosette (Claire Danes), the young daughter of Fantine (Uma Thurman), one of his factory workers. After being fired for having a child out of wedlock, Fantine is reduced to prostitution in order to make money. Valjean attempts to rescue her from her miserable condition, but she eventually becomes sick and dies, leaving him with Cosette. In an attempt to escape Javert's pursuit, Valjean raises Cosette in a Parisian convent.

When the teenage Cosette falls in love with a young student revolutionary named Marius (newcomer Hans Matheson), Valjean's existence is again put into peril. While investigating Marius, Javert discovers Valjean's new identity. Their paths become crossed during the Parisian student revolutions following the death of the last sympathetic government leader, General Lamarque. (For those not up on their French history, some portions of the film may be a bit confusing.)

"Les Misérables" is considered one of the greatest novels of all time, but at more than 1,400 pages in length, it represents a daunting task for a movie adaptation. Hugo was a fervent political activist, and much of the novel was written as a fierce political statement. However, the majority of the political dimension is lost in the transformation to the big screen, and what is left is essentially a cinematic human drama, which has its ups and downs.

The best aspect of the film is the antagonistic relationship between Valjean and Javert. Neeson gives Valjean a bold, powerful, yet noble presence. You can truly feel that this man has a good heart, and the constant persecution he endures is sometimes painful. On the other side, Geoffrey Rush -- in his first starring role since winning the Oscar for "Shine" (1996) -- is outstanding as the rigid Inspector Javert, whose strict enforcement of the law is really a perversion of it. Rush is cunning, harsh, and unsmiling in his performance, although he gives Javert just enough humanity that the audience can feel some pity for him at the end.

On the down side, the romance between Cosette and Marius is woefully underdeveloped. Their relationship seems more plot necessity than an integral aspect of the story's thematic development. It might have been better if August had trimmed the beginning of the film to allow more narrative expansion at the end, instead of cramming so much into the last thirty minutes. As Cosette, Claire Danes is never truly effective because she doesn't get enough screen time to make her character sympathetic -- she comes off as kind of a brat. This is unfortunate because the way her romance with Marius plays out in the movie, it's puppy love, not worthy of the noble Valjean's destruction.

"Les Misérables" does get a good boost from its outstanding technical qualities, including beautiful cinematography by Jörgen Persson and gritty production design by Anna Asp, both of whom worked with August on "Smilla's Sense of Snow" (1997). However, the battle scenes at the barricade between the student revolutionaries and Javert's army are quick and seemingly inconsequential, despite the bloodshed. The intense realism of Hugo's prose is almost entirely lost at what should have been the grand climax. Instead, it is undermined by August's apparent rush to bring the film to its conclusion.

Copyright 1998 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (2.5)

James Kendrick

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