Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
May 1, 1998
In describing his gargantuan 1862 novel Les Misérables, Victor Hugo stated, "So long as ignorance and misery remain on the earth, there should be a need for books such as this."
Danish director Bille August's (Smilla's Sense of Snow) new interpretation indicates Hugo's remark is more than a boast. If August and screenwriter Rafael Yglesias (Fearless) don't have much that's new with this interpretation, they have at least made a sincere and occasionally powerful film. Liam Neeson (Schindler's List) plays the beleaguered Jean Valjean. Valjean's ordeal would make Job cringe. In fact, his release from almost two decades of prison (for stealing a loaf of bread) is just the beginning of his trouble. He has changed his ways and become an honest and charitable citizen. One small town where he lives even appoints him mayor. Nonetheless, the reclusive Valjean constantly lives in fear of his past.
Wherever he goes, he is mercilessly pursued by the fanatical Inspector Javert (Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush from Shine). In his quest to uphold the law, Javert is as persistent as Freddy Krueger and almost as compassionate. As the years pass, Javert stops at nothing to put Valjean back in chains.
The setting may be 19th-century France, and the story is oft-told. Still, August is able to hold an audience's attention because Hugo's themes of displacement and redemption resonate in the age of downsizing. August captures the period nicely. The sets and the scenery look great, but there's enough dinginess and grit to make the suffering of Valjean and others hit home. Yglesias does a fairly good job of paring down the story (two hours is pretty scant for a story this big). Even if some of the supporting characters get short changed and a monologue or two sounds stilted (like the warning Valjean delivers to the revolutionary Marius), Yglesias does capture enough of the right elements.
Neeson's presence doesn't hurt, either. No stranger to larger-than-life roles (he was also fabulous in Rob Roy and Michael Collins), Neeson is consistently sympathetic even during Valjean's more despicable moments. In addition, the burly actor even resembles Hugo's physical description (Valjean is unfortunate, but he's no little wimp).
Rush sometimes gets a bit hammy, but Javert is hardly a low-key character. If he doesn't look like much of a physical match for Neeson, he projects a scary single-mindedness. Claire Daines is solid as Cosette, the girl Valjean "adopts," and Uma Thurman is appropriately pathetic as Fantine, a luckless woman Vajean defends.
August's interpretation is far from definitive. It doesn't have the impact of the 1935 version (which starred Frederic March and Charles Laughton) or the creativity of Claude Lelouch's 1995 film. The new film is, however, a decent introduction to an enthralling story and is earnest enough to seem fresh (PG-13). Rating: 7.
This page was last updated on 05/01/98.