Les Misérables (1998)

reviewed by
Harvey S. Karten

 Reviewed by Harvey Karten, Ph.D.
 Columbia Pictures
 Director: Bille August
 Writer: Rafael Yglesias from Victor Hugos' novel
 Cast:Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, Claire
Danes, Hans Matheson

A short while ago a woman was put to death in Texas for the brutal pickax murder of two people. The execution followed world-wide protests in favor of clemency, not simply because she was a woman but because she had reformed so much during her long years on death row. She had become a kind, generous, born-again Christian, a pale shadow of her former ruthless self, a transformation which led some to insist that Texas would not be executing the same person. Even more significant was the contention by another large block of people that she was a fake: that human nature does not change.

Can human nature change? Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo's epic "Les Miserables," said himself that "the world has not changed," and indeed, if we look around us we find the planet is still teeming with poverty, homelessness, vindictiveness as well as with examples of kindness, generosity, and good will. This is what gives "Les Miserables" its contemporary appeal. But if Valjean meant that the individual cannot change, he was dead wrong as he proves himself during the twenty-year span of the story. Valjean is changed by love--the respect accorded him by a bishop from whom he stole; the affection he felt for a young prostitute; and most of all for the adoration given him by an eight-year-old girl whom he cared for over the course of two decades. But not everyone changes: Javert, the principal villain of this tale- of-many-characters, is himself brutalized by his environment and takes on an anal-retentive obsession with duty. He is the quintessential go-by-the-book creep. The twenty-year struggle between the miserly Javert and the beneficent Valjean is probably what gives the story a universal appeal that has made it popular throughout the world, has led to a long-running Broadway musical, and has been the subject of four films, featuring greats like Fredric March, Charles Laughton, Michael Rennie, Gino Cervi, Jean Gabin, Richard Jordan, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and now Liam Neeson.

The current offering helmed by Bille August differs from the 1995 Claude Lelouch in that Lelouch framed the story by placing it into a 20th-century landscape, ending in a story of France during World War II. In that, Belmondo is a simple man who becomes like Jean Valjean as he helps a Jewish family fleeing from the Nazis. Lelouch wanted to impress us with the impact that a single good man can have on the lives of the people around him. August's version is more straightforward and suffers, by comparison, for its didacticism. Better suited for a high-school class of kids with no prior knowledge of the narrative, this "Les Miserables" telescopes the long social chronicle into a relatively brief 129 minutes (Lelouch used 178) and spells out each detail so plainly that the most classics-hating pupil would be able to follow--if not to love--the adventure. The photography is as direct as the story is straight, in no way emulating the gauzy effects of a Merchant-Ivory work.

"Les Miserables" is a Dickensian tale which uses the downtrodden people of Paris as a backdrop to its central, moral narrative. Bille August's version ignores the opening scenes of the novel which shows Jean Valjean (Liam Neeson) stealing a loaf of bread, gaining a five-year sentence, and then having the penalty upped to nineteen after an escape attempt. We do witness his visit to the kind bishop who allows him the use of his home and food and refuses to turn him in when Valjean is picked up for stealing the old man's silverware. Much of the tale is a detective drama, featuring the pursuit by the reformed Valjean by the obsessed police inspector Javert (Geoffrey Rush), as Javert believes that a depraved man will always be depraved and dangerous and insists on apprehending Valjean. Valjean becomes rich when he invents a way to use jet for jewelry (also not shown in the movie) and uses his wealth to better the lives of the workers in his factory. His life takes on much greater meaning when he adopts the eight-year-old Cosette after the death of her mother, Fantine (Uma Thurman), and while the Javert-Valjean chase goes on, Valjean does not reveal to his charge that he is not her real father.

The beady-eyed Geoffrey Rush, who turned in a stunning performance as a disturbed concert pianist in "Shine," rises to the occasion as a man who is also disturbed, but is unable to release his full energies because of the limitations of Rafael Yglesias's pedantic screenplay. Neeson is better able to overcome the weakness of the script by his powerful presence, though the tremendous love he feels for Cosette does not really come across.

This "Les Miserables" is a fine text for helping students in French Literature 101 but falls short of engaging the senses the way a momentous melodrama of this caliber should. Rated PG-13. Running time: 129 minutes. (C) Harvey Karten 1998

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