Les Miserables (1998) (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

As written by Victor Hugo, the 19th century classic novel Les Miserables is a long, sprawling epic that encompasses everything from the political upheaval of post-Revolutionary France to the intimate orchestrations of the heart. Over the years, millions of fans have come to admire Jean Valjean, the book's protagonist, who proves that a man can change, and to adore Cosette, the one girl who captures his heart. Considering the book's length, which easily exceeds 1000 pages, there's no way that a 135-minute motion picture can begin to capture its vast scope (nor, for that matter, can a 3-plus hour popular musical). Nevertheless, while screenwriter's Rafael Yglesias makes a host of significant cuts, he manages not only to capture the essence of Les Miserables' key theme - redemption - but also to faithfully render the characters as more than one-dimensional condensations of their literary inspirations.

Towering over the entire film is Liam Neeson, the Irish actor who seems at home in any kind of picture, whether it transpires in contemporary America, World War II Germany, or centuries-ago Scotland. Here, the setting is France during the 1820s and 1830s. Using all his considerable powers as an actor, Neeson buries himself in the role of Jean Valjean, a convicted thief, who, after serving 19 years in prison, is released on parole. Valjean is a bitter, dejected man who is headed back to a life of crime until a monsignor takes pity on him, and, through a simple act of kindness, causes Valjean to re-evaluate his life and dedicate himself to the betterment of others. As brought to the screen by Neeson, Valjean is not only a grand, heroic figure, but a distinctly human individual as well, with frailties aplenty.

Valjean's opposite is Inspector Javert, an inflexible man who pursues the former criminal in part because he sees much of himself in his quarry. The one thing that separates the two is that, while Valjean lives a life characterized by love and kindness, Javert is consumed by a fear of transgressing the law that he clings to like a lifeline. Geoffrey Rush, as dislikable here as he was likable as David Helfgott in Shine, makes Javert a memorable villain, but he avoids the obvious temptation of turning the inspector into a cartoonish bad guy. As Valjean has his failings, so Javert has his virtues, and there are many times when we pity him more than hate him.

For the most part, Les Miserables is the story of Javert's attempts to track down and punish Valjean. It's an obsession that blinds Javert to all else, and consumes his entire life. Other characters enter and leave as the tale progresses. There is Fantine (Uma Thurman), a poor, sick prostitute who Valjean takes under his protection, and with whom he forms a powerful bond. Cosette (Mimi Newman and, later, Claire Danes) is Fantine's bastard daughter, who Valjean raises after her mother's death. And Marius (Hans Matheson) is a fiery revolutionary who captures Cosette's heart even as he plans to restore the Republic to France.

None of the supporting actors come close to matching Neeson's quiet intensity or Rush's zeal. Uma Thurman is surprisingly effective as Fantine, but she's on-screen for less than a quarter of the film. Mimi Newman is wonderful as the 8 year-old Cosette, but, after the girl ages 10 years, Claire Danes is a dubious replacement. Given to overacting her most emotionally-charged scenes, Danes seems wrong for the part. Hans Matheson, playing her love interest, is rather bland, but he is handicapped by an underwritten part. The Marius of the movie is a pale shadow of the Marius of the book, and the screen version of the love story is far from captivating. Marius often seems more like a plot device than a genuine character.

Directed by Bille August, who was once hand-picked by Ingmar Bergman to helm The Best Intentions, Les Miserables is a gloriously rich, if flawed, drama. The two-plus hours fly by as we are captivated by the characters and their circumstances. Despite being condensed from a novel that would take 20 hours to present in its entirety, the film rarely has the feel of being rushed. It progresses briskly, but in such a manner that we never lose sight of the two-pronged emotional core of the story: Valjean's rivalry with Javert and his deep, abiding love for Cosette.

This is not, of course, the first motion picture version of Les Miserables, but it is one of the better ones, with a streamlined script that doesn't have the uneven feel of many of its predecessors. There's little doubt that the popularity of the musical made it easier to finance the movie, but anyone expecting singing and dancing will be in for a shock. And, while this version of Les Miserables lacks the cleverness and contemporary spin evident in Claude Lelouch's brilliant 1995 re-interpretation, it is moving and effective in its own right, as a more "straightforward" adaptation. Kudos to all involved for a finely-crafted period drama that delivers over two hours of solid, literate entertainment.

Les Miserables (1998) (United States, 1998)

Director: Bille August
Cast: Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, Claire Danes, Hans Matheson
Screenplay: Rafael Yglesias based on the novel by Victor Hugo
Cinematography: Jorgen Persson
Music: Basil Poledouris
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 1998-05-01
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Content)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1