Aug/Sep 1998 Film and Cinema

Les Miserables

reviewed by Mark Leeper

Capsule: Victor Hugo's often-dramatized novel
gets a new screen adaptation with Liam Neeson as
Jean Valjean and Geoffrey Rush as Inspector Javert.
This is a fairly accurate interpretation of the
novel, but too often the film is dark-literally and
in tone—and occasionally the style is bloodless
and uninvolving. But it is still a pleasure to see
one of the world's greatest stories on the wide screen.
Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4)
New York Critics: 8 positive, 4 negative, 6 mixed


The best and certainly the longest novel I ever read—about 1600 pages in my unabridged edition—was Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. Hugo turned slow operatic pacing into a piece of monumental art throwing in which fifty-page essays were just side comments. This novel also has the distinction of being the only piece of written fiction that ever moved me to tears. So I was very much looking forward to seeing the new film version. The new version is not a screen adaptation of the popular international musical, but a straight dramatic rendering. Much of what I enjoyed of the novel was missing, but then it should come as no great surprise that not all 1600 pages of story would make it to the screen.

Liam Neeson plays Jean Valjean, a vicious ex-convict who is turned in one night into a human saint by the goodness of the Bishop of D. But in the course of the story he will be tempted to return to evil many times as his past repeatedly fights to catch up with him. In this case his past takes the form of the implacable Inspector Javert, searching for the missing Valjean. Shine's Geoffrey Rush plays the inflexible lover of law and order Javert who hounds Valjean for years. As the film opens Jean Valjean has already been released from his nineteen years in prison, but with his yellow passport nobody will give him shelter until an old woman suggests he try the door of the Bishop of D. After the familiar story of the Bishop's silver, probably the best-known sequence in the novel, we jump forward ten years to see Valjean having become the enlightened factory owner and mayor of the village of Vigo. Uma Thurman plays Fantine, a woman fired from his factory who turns to prostitution. Fantine has got to be the least glamorous role of Thurman's career. Behind the (intentionally) ghastly makeup Thurman is able to put some real passion into her role and gives as good a performance as I can remember from her. Her love for her daughter is a new inspiration for Valjean. Claire Danes completes the set of principles as the adult daughter Cosette in a role that requires little but that she be cute and a bit spoiled.

The film takes a number of small liberties with Hugo's plotting to make things going on within characters' heads happen on-screen and more visibly. In this version Valjean does not just slip out of the Bishop's house with the silver; he physically attacks the Bishop. Valjean's escape to find Cosette is much simplified from the novel and turned into a carriage chase to add some excitement to the story. The Thenardiers are reduced from major characters in the novel to a single scene. The modification that is really the most bothersome is the final meeting of Javert and Valjean. Apparently Rafael Yglesias, who wrote the script, wanted a piece of strong dramatic action. He ends the film in a major key, where a minor key seems more natural to portray Javert's final doubts.

Liam Neeson is physically a large man making him instantly more appropriate than Fredric March was in the classic 1935 version. Neeson tends to underplay the role where some more passion would have been what was expected. Geoffrey Rush is equally passionless, but in this case it works to his advantage. Javert, after all, makes himself little more than a machine for enforcing rules and laws. The most disappointing casting is in having Peter Vaughan play the Bishop of D. Vaughan appears to be something of a ditherer, a nice man but not one with a great deal of intellectual power. Yet the Bishop is really the most important character in the story, and Valjean is only an extension of the goodness of the Bishop into a second person. Valjean is the embodiment of the good that the Bishop did living on rather than being interred with the Bishop's bones.

Les Miserables too often is just a bit bloodless. It is a bit more an intellectual exercise than the story of tragedy and triumph Hugo wrote. Still it recalls the passion of the novel. I would still give it a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.


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