Victor Hugo’s iconic 1862 epic, both in terms of its vast, decades sprawling narrative as well as being a considerable paper brick, no matter how abridged your version may be, has enjoyed quite a cinematic shelf life. Actors of the calibre of Anthony Perkins, Gerard Depardieu and Hugh Jackman have been involved, and each major era of cinema and television history has its own version of the story, with an assortment of trims and tucks to accommodate the sheer size of Hugo’s tale.
The late 90s decided to chip in with their own version, helmed by Danish auteur Bille August (The House of the Spirits, Goodbye Bafana), and starring soon to be Jedi master Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean, the 19th century convict who is given a chance for redemption, despite the persistence of the law-obsessed Inspector Javert (Geoffrey Rush), when he must raise Cosette (Claire Danes), the child of the lowly Fantine (Uma Thurman), amidst the various turmoils in post-Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, culminating in the bloody debacle of the student revolt in Paris.
While its ending will have Hugo purists boiling with rage (as if the paired down runtime wasn’t already a red flag for them), August’s adaptation still manages to be a very fine film in its own right for several reasons. Its first and most immediate strength is its all-star cast: Neeson and Rush turn in great showings in the two central roles, playing off each other perfectly as the kind-hearted Valjean contrasts against the ruthless Javert. Neeson, thanks to a combination of height and voice, has almost this friendly giant quality to him, which definitely aids in our ability to sympathise with Valjean, while Rush´s performance is surprisingly subdued. Despite similarities in time periods, his Javert is not a proto-Barbossa as a cop, but rather someone who is calculating while almost fanatically devoted to his work. Thurman, following from Batman & Robin and The Avengers, does make up for it here with a nuanced and kindly performance as the increasingly beaten down Fantine, while Danes’ Cosette, though a little more spoilt and brash than other versions, still conveys that sense of goodness and hope that is so central to the character and how she helps Valjean´s redemption.
Production-wise, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a modestly budgeted Euro-centric affair: August’s direction is sweeping and large, enhanced by splendid costuming, sets and widescreen location filming that does make you believe you are looking at early to mid 19th century France, lost in the midst of horrid prisons, vast forests and bloody street battles during the student revolution. Veteran master Basil Poledouris’ score is also nicely varied, going from booming and romantic, to intimate and sombre as we journey with Valjean in his effort to reclaim his life.
Rafael Yglesias (the same man behind the amazing screenplay for Peter Weir’s woefully overlooked Fearless (1993)) does a good, workmanlike job of adapting and condensing Hugo’s novel, mainly focusing on Valjean’s journey and dialing back on a lot of the sociopolitical commentary of Hugo’s work (once again, sparing us from an endless treatise on Parisian sewers). This approach gives us probably the most fleshed out Valjean and Javert ever put to screen, allowing us to really get in their heads and see what makes them tick, as well as offer more than a handful of genuinely emotional moments among the characters that tug at the heart without being too sappy (a lot of them occurring during the second and third acts as Valjean is forced to step up to the plate and make the right choice, even if all else says no, for Cosette).
This is a double-edged sword, however, as this means most of the supporting cast are cut or severely reduced. For example, the Thernadiers are on-screen for only a few moments, and student revolutionaries-cum-heartthrobs Marius and Enjorlas get collapsed into one character for Cosette to schmooze with, among a number of other changes that will have the purists positively screaming at the screen (especially the ending). These changes also mean that a lot of the bigger, more political ideas in Les Miserables are much more in the background compared to other, longer versions. The focus on redemption and what it means to be a good man dominate over ideas related to social equality, abuse of the law, justice, the bloody costs of change and the other five hundred things Hugo went on about. This means August´s Les Mis is less an intellectual, and more an emotional experience, very much embracing the melodrama over all else, which depending on your fealty to the sources and other adaptations may or may not annoy you.
But despite that, this more basic take on Les Mis still works as an engaging period piece with really tight pacing, strong casting and a good emotional undercurrent. It may not be definitive, in fact very far from it, but it is an entertaining drama and definitely overlooked when compared to the other, more famous versions. Frankly, if you need to clear your head of Crowe´s singing, give this one a shot.
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