1998, PG-13, 129 min. Directed by Bille August. Starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, Claire Danes, Hans Matheson, Reine Brynolfsson, Peter Vaughn.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 1, 1998
I should confess up front that after a cursory high school reading of the classic novel and a late-Eighties viewing of the Broadway phenomenon, this is actually my first brush with a cinematic version of Victor Hugo's sprawling, melodramatic epic. That said, this version by director Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror) holds together extremely well; it's full of rich, dark hues and excellent overall casting that's highlighted by a bulky Neeson as the convict-turned-mayor-turned-redemptive archetype Jean Valjean and Rush as the grimly determined, obsessive-compulsive Inspector Javert. August is a master of distinctive shots and glowering close-ups (Thurman's woebegone Madonna/whore Fantine is almost always seen in grimy, gritty detail) and production manager Ales Komarek makes the most out of the film's Czech, Polish, and French location work. For those unfamiliar with Hugo's tale, Les Misérables begins outside of Paris in the early 19th century, when the recently paroled convict Valjean receives a new lease on life from an aging priest who parts with his silver in order to return his charge to the hands of God. Ten years later, Valjean has set himself up as the respected mayor of the community of Vigau, when his old nemesis Javert arrives in town as the new police chief. Javert recognizes and denounces Valjean, but not before the mayor falls in love with the lovely Fantine, a penniless streetwalker who soon dies of consumption. Having given his word to Fantine that he would seek out and protect her only child, the young Cosette, Valjean flees Vigau, locates Cosette, and raises her as his own daughter while hiding in a Parisian convent. Here, Cosette grows from a chipper street urchin into Claire Danes, and eventually falls for rabble-rouser Marius (Matheson), a handsome student intent on revolution. As Paris teeters on the brink of another internal disaster, Javert reappears just in time to finally arrest the saintly Valjean. That's not the final score, of course, but it's as much as I feel safe in revealing to all three of you who are new to the subject and period piece. August takes no prisoners: His Paris of 1812 and the July 1832 revolution are finely realized, crammed to bursting with scullery maids, wenches, and befouled extras. Likewise, his smooth tracking shots that snake through the subterranean sewers and the narrow, cobbled alleyways. And true to its source, August's version aroused not a few fusillades of sniffling from the audience around me. Condensing a massive tome like Les Misérables into a cohesive 129-minute film is a labor of love in any case, and August succeeds with remarkable, powerful results.