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Les misérables (2000)
A confident and intelligent production.
One of my favourite versions, second only to the 1934 adaptation.
Six hours in length, Depardieu as Valjean, Malkovich as Javert, rich in detail and emotionally engaging - what more can one ask?
As with the 1934 version, this treatment is very full and therefore retains the strength of the original. It contains a number of alterations to the original narrative, but remains faithful to the essence of the characters, though I found Valjean's obsessive behaviour toward Cosette somewhat exaggerated, and too little emphasis laid on his sense of duty, responsibility, and lack of self-esteem, as his motivation.
The direction is crisp, the script intelligent and engaging, and the acting convincing and moving.
Depardieu is an excellent Valjean, articulate and ultimately tragic, while Malkovich is entirely convincing and gives us an unusually "human" Javert. Christian Clavier is splendidly scheming, selfish and low, while Virginie Ledoyen is suitably appealing as Cosette.
This is a confident and intelligent production which is not afraid of its origins.
Les misérables (1934)
The version that comes closest to capturing the spirit of the original
I got my first glimpse of the 1934 version while watching the 1995 adaptation with Jean-Paul Belmondo. The clips to which we are treated there intrigued me and after considerable rooting around the internet I managed to obtain a copy on video (to the best of my knowledge it has never been released in Britain). I was not disappointed. This is quite the fullest and most satisfying cinematic version of Hugo's extraordinary tale yet produced. Some may find the running time of around four and a half hours quite daunting, but I found that I hardly noticed the time pass. The reasons for its success are manifold. Firstly the detail and therefore the strength of the original are largely retained. Characters are properly fleshed out, and just as in the original we feel we share the characters' lives and get to know and care about them. The depth and number of characters are not sacrificed to considerations of time and commerce. Although some of the photography appears dated by modern standards, Raymond Bernard's literate script and direction are stimulating and advance the narrative at a steady pace (despite the impression created by the running time). He is masterful in the creation of atmosphere in both intimate and crowd scenes. For example the film is quite spectacular in its depiction of the 1832 uprising, yet it is deeply moving in the scenes involving Valjean and the Bishop. The music (by Arthur Honegger) has great dignity and is entirely apt to the tenor of the film and the themes it embraces. However, if the real strength of the piece is in the depth and conviction of its characters, their cinematic success is due in no short measure to the quality of the acting. Fantine (Josseline Gael) is perhaps a little melodramatic for modern tastes, and Javert (Charles Vanel) lacks a truly tragic quality, but all told the performances are faithful to the original and convincing, and none more so than Harry Baur as Valjean. His immense physical presence and slow, controlled delivery, combined with his ability to express his inner feelings with little more than a look or a moment's hesitation command our respect and sympathy, making him the perfect incarnation of the tormented but determined Valjean. It wreaks sincerity and a genuine desire to transfer not just the story, but the spirit of the original onto the big screen.
The Sand Pebbles (1966)
The Sand Pebbles - a powerful and human anti-war film
`The Sand Pebbles' has been one of my favourite films since I first saw it on television in 1976. The widescreen version does justice not just to the sweeping panoramas of the quite breathtaking Chinese scenery, but also to the sweeping events and themes of the story. It is in every way a `big' film, dealing with political and military intervention (clear parallels with Vietnam at the time of release), nationalism, racism, and the horrors of war. Yet for all its heavy themes, it is most successful in the depiction of its very human characters. These characters are not just the means of conveying the `messages' of the film, or fodder for the gripping and well-staged action scenes. They are individuals in their own right, involved in something far greater than their own destinies. Some are unpleasant and ignorant while others are honourable but lost in the sea of historic events surrounding them. Some, like Jake Holman (Steve McQueen), demand sympathy and respect as they struggle to come to terms with their personal challenges brought to the fore by these historically significant and politically dangerous events.
Inevitably there are slow and confusing passages as the political implications are expounded, but these are more than compensated for by our emotional engagement as we become involved in the stories of the people caught up in the political fall-out. Robert Wise's direction is strong and emotionally charged, complemented perfectly by Jerry Goldsmith's wonderfully haunting and ominous music. Steve McQueen gives what was probably the performance of his career (receiving his only Academy Award nomination), and he is supported by a wonderful cast including Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen (aged just 19), and especially Mako. But it is really McQueen's film. His very presence lifts scenes and he manages to convey authenticity and gain the sympathy of the viewer with consummate ease. Apparently misunderstood by some critics on its release, it is a powerful and intrinsically human anti-war film. It is not a happy film, but it is totally absorbing and thought provoking.