Les Miserables (1998)

D: Billie August
S: Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Claire Danes

Well mounted adaptation of Victor Hugo's voluminous novel, the first since the popular stage musical (apart from Claude Lelouch's modern-day retelling with Jean-Paul Belmondo). Liam Neeson plays Jean Valjean, the ex convict (imprisoned for twenty years for stealing a loaf of bread) who rebuilds his life in nineteenth century France by concealing his identity after a kindly bishop 'buys his soul for God' by giving him charity. He is pursued by the dogged, rule-obsessed police officer Javert (played by Geoffrey Rush), who wants to expose him for what he is and keep him in his predetermined place in society. Along the way Valjean takes on the responsibility of raising a young girl named Cosette (Claire Danes), who adds complications to his life when she longs to see more of the world.

The first half of Billie August's film is wonderfully paced, powerfully performed and completely involving. It charts the story to Valjean's arrival in Paris having fled the mayorship of Vigo. Neeson is magnetic in the lead and Rush makes a convincingly determined Javert. It builds on a thematic and narrative level to a terrific climax and a fitting resolution. The second half, charting the subsequent years of Cosette's maturation and her involvement with the radical students who eventually lead an abortive revolution against the King's authority is less compelling. Driven by the need to compress a significant body of events into a remaining hour of screen time, the film mercilessly accelerates through a great deal of potential character development and does not take enough time to establish our sympathies with the new characters who come to dominate the story. It remains at its most effective when focusing on Valjean and Javert, to the point where scenes involving Cosette and Marius become tedious and irritating.

This is unfortunate because this film has been assembled with great skill and attention to period detail. It is well crafted in the best sense of the word, and August's direction is usually clear and effective. But its fractured structure tends to make what should be important details into colourful background, with the themes of revolution and social upheaval taking second place to the spiritual conflict between the two leads. This leaves the film with just enough drama to hold our attention to the end, but it tends to make the second half of the film anticlimactic rather than cathartic. It also omits a number of sub-plots and characters, though this is not unusual in screen adaptations. The film really needed another hour to do full justice to even the material it does take on, and it is unlikely that a mainstream American production in this day and age would opt for a two-part, two-screening format (the British-made Little Dorrit was the last major film to do so). It is unfortunate though, given that with this director, this cast, and these handsome production values, there was certainly an opportunity to capture the novel in all its power and magnitude.

Les Miserables is still quite a watchable film, and there are many pleasures to be had from viewing it on the level of spectacle and performance. It spins a relatively good yarn, and it never becomes dull. It fills two hours or so with fairly moving drama and will provide entertainment for most audiences. But this is a slightly uncomfortable position to be forced to occupy, especially when even the musical managed to achieve a greater degree of political resonance. This story should by rights be consciousness-raising; a treatise on the social inequalities of the times which still holds a salutary lesson for contemporary society. Despite what might perhaps have been the hopes of its makers, this version is not. It still has a measure of emotional punch thanks in large part to the performances of Neeson and Rush, but this does not transfer to the oppressed masses who provide the film with its title, which can't be right.

It is worth seeing, but any recommendation should be qualified by noting that one should not substitute a screening of the film for a reading of the book.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.