OK, OK, we get the point! The Fox Family Channel is not Pat Robertson’s plaything anymore, or even a channel purely for the kids, or whatever other preconceptions we may have had about it. This, after all, is the cable net that’s airing the world premiere of “Les Miserables,” a four-hour made-for based on the epic Hugo novel. Sounds like fare for A&E, oui? Or perhaps the even more upscale Bravo, which recently aired the French-language “Balzac,” from the same set of international production companies as this new effort, as well as the same director, Josee Dayan, and the same star, Gerard Depardieu. As a marketing ploy, the arty period piece is unbranding overkill, which was probably the point. As entertainment, this new “Les Miz” reps a clean telling of the elaborate tale, at least for the first half. As it goes on, though, it bogs down rather heavily.
Filmed in Prague, mini has two versions, one in French, clocking in at a marathon eight hours, and one in English, which runs a relatively meager four (aired in two two-hour segs, which will run consecutively). In case you were uncertain — and who could blame you? — Fox Family will be showing it in English, and the actors, except for John Malkovich as Javert, speak in heavy Gallic accents. In a sense, this provides a more authentic sound than Bille August’s 1998 film version, where the actors, led by Liam Neeson, had a decidedly Irish-English dialect. Despite the accents of the earlier film and its lack of domestic commercial success, that Sony pic was quite strong aesthetically, superior in most respects to this far less dramatic, slightly longer version.
Depardieu and Malkovich are a fun pair to watch, though, and as long as they’re the focus, the film basks in their unquestionably potent presence. Depardieu, as the convict-cum-saintly-good-guy Jean Valjean, is at his most restrained. Valjean is a man who carries a heavy metaphorical burden, and while Depardieu’s snout is a good emblem of such wear, the rest of the performance is a bit technical and not particularly involving.
Malkovich, on the other hand, is a memorable Javert, the police inspector who chases Valjean for decades, unrelenting in his belief that people who have committed crimes can never reform. The sheer chilliness of the portrayal is at times so extreme it’s almost funny, and in a tightly wrapped black jacket he looks a bit like a burnt sausage. But Malkovich pulls it off indeed when Javert finally realizes his error. His final scene is simple, yet exceedingly striking, certainly Dayan’s most effectively realized touch.
The romantic plotline that dominates the latter half, though, is unconvincing, even tedious. Perhaps it’s the language barrier, but Virginie Ledoyen’s Cosette and a miscast Enrico LoVerso’s Marius hardly generate sparks, and the barricade scenes are particularly muddy in their editing. Christian Clavier provides a strong performance as the ever-conniving Thenardier, a part that’s given significant weight in this version.
The tech credits are strong, and overall this is certainly commendable television, although our need for another adaptation of this literary masterpiece is open to question. Perhaps, instead, it should be adapted into a Broadway musical. … Nah, too dreary, n’est-ce pas?