Review: Les Misérables

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, May 1, 1998]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

As fodder for film, Victor Hugo’s mammoth 19th-century novel Les Misérables has rarely been out of style. Filmed as early as 1909, this saga of injustice, revolution, and redemption has been reincarnated in celluloid several times every decade since (except, oddly, the Sixties, when injustice and revolution—though not redemption—were much on people’s minds). Only a miniseries or “long form” version could hope to encompass all of Hugo’s saga, but the core narrative—the decades-long pursuit of reformed ex-convict Jean Valjean by the legality-obsessed police officer Javert—is wellnigh foolproof as religious allegory, psychological study, and bedrock suspense story.

So how is it that the latest manifestation, starring Liam (Oskar Schindler) Neeson as Valjean and Geoffrey (Oscar for Shine) Rush as Javert, and directed by long-form specialist Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror, The Best Intentions), should be so inert? Although played by an English-speaking cast, it unreels in dead air, like an international coproduction in which actors from several countries have been dubbed into canned English by a separate cast. The settings, executed mostly on Czech locations by Bergman designer Anna Asp (Fanny and Alexander), are persuasive, but except for the early sequence of Valjean’s encounter with the rural bishop (Peter Vaughn) who saves him from terminal brute bitterness—“I have bought your soul … and now I give you back to God”—none is mapped coherently by August’s camera. What ought to be a great set-piece late in the film, the flight of Valjean through the Paris sewers with the body of his adopted daughter’s revolutionist lover in his arms, is shockingly inept; not one shot follows another with spatial or dramatic conviction. It’s as though vitality, intensity, the fundamental chase-movie logic of how to get from here to there, had been lost in translation.

Rafael Yglesias’s screenplay does a yeoman job of condensing the big book and focusing on the theme of redemption, but the movie lacks pace. We don’t feel the weight of time or transformation; twice an intertitle announces “Nine Years Later” or “Ten Years Later,” but except for the daughter Cosette—played at age 8 by Mimi Newman and at 19 by the milkmaid-fresh Claire Danes—no one seems older, let alone weathered by experience. August even fumbles the famous milestones of the journey, throwing away classic moments like Javert’s witnessing of the two times Valjean uses his galley-hardened strength to shift a terrible weight off a fallen man. In the press notes, Rush credits August with avoiding melodrama and finding “a very credible, contemporary mode of behavior, where the action is stripped quite bare and is not too flourished.” Hmm. But then August ran for cover with a typically bombastic Basil Pouledoris score to pump up a sense of consequence.

Meanwhile, the ringing bravura of Hollywood’s 1935 version with Fredric March and Charles Laughton still raises the neck hair after sixty years, while Claude Lelouch’s 1995 meditation stands as an imaginative modern retelling. Our advice: get thee to the videostore, not the multiplex. – Richard T. Jameson


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