The third American bigscreen rendition of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, Bille August’s “Les Miserables” is without a doubt the most emotionally powerful and handsomely mounted production of the story yet. Superb international cast includes a terrific Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush, in his first role since winning an Oscar. Though the romantic, “Romeo and Juliet”-like plot appears mostly in the last reel, Columbia could profitably use it to lure younger audiences to a period piece that naturally holds stronger appeal for older and more educated viewers. A classy entertainment that does full honor to its source, this early-summer release should play well as counterprogramming to season’s more typical action-adventure fare.
Hugo’s seminal 19th century novel, filmed in Hollywood in 1935 by Richard Boleslawski and in 1952 by Lewis Milestone, continues to intrigue new generations of artists and audiences: In addition to the three U.S. movies, there have been a number of TV adaptations, Italian and French film versions (most recently by Claude Lelouch, with Jean-Paul Belmondo), and a long-running musical that is still playing all over the world.
Most film versions begin with the trial of Valjean and his imprisonment in Toulon for committing a minor crime, stealing a loaf of bread. In this adaptation, scripter Rafael Yglesias starts with Valjean (Neeson) being released on parole after enduring 20 years of hard labor and cruelty. The harsh treatment has made Valjean a brute with strong survival instincts but no sense of morality. The only things he can rely on are his instinctive wit and sheer physical strength.
In the first sequence, Valjean, on his way to Dijon to report for parole, stops at a bishop’s house, where he’s amazed to be treated with respect. Nonetheless, incapable of trusting anyone, he steals the silverware and runs away. Caught by the police and brought back, he’s even more astonished when the bishop claims the silverware was a gift and, as further proof of Valjean’s innocence, hands him two silver candlesticks. In return, the bishop asks Valjean to be kind and help others, whereupon an inner moral odyssey begins, one that forces Valjean to wrestle with his conscience.
Story then jumps to 1822, with a reinvented Valjean serving as the humble and popular mayor of Vigau, a small, thriving village, where he also runs a profitable factory. First encounter with former inspector Javert (Rush) occurs in this peaceful town, when the strict lawman joins the local police. Suspicious of Valjean’s true identity, Javert eventually recognizes him as a onetime convict and, infuriated, goes to Paris to demand that Valjean be denounced. But he lacks sufficient proof.
Central chapters concern the tender, caring relationship that evolves between Valjean and Fantine (Uma Thurman), a woman dismissed from her factory job on moral grounds when it’s disclosed that she has an illegitimate daughter. Malnourished, she resorts to prostitution and later falls ill when Javert arrests and tortures her. On her deathbed, Fantine makes Valjean promise to rescue her daughter, Cosette, and raise her as his child.
Moving ahead a decade, to the tumultuous events of the July 1832 revolution, third and most eventful act focuses on Valjean’s life with Cosette (Claire Danes), a young woman who’s fallen in love with militant student Marius (Hans Matheson). Faithful to the book, last sequence occurs on the banks of the Seine River, when Valjean and Javert fatefully face each other for the last time.
August’s film is structured and presented in a way that makes Hugo’s thematic concerns of love, forgiveness and redemption palatable to contempo audiences. Scripter Yglesias underplays the book’s political context, which takes prominence only in pic’s last reel. Since it’s impossible to tell the whole story, the focus is on Valjean’s struggle toward goodness and peace with himself, and the cat-and-mouse relationship between him and Javert as opposed yet not entirely opposite personalities. This version emphasizes more than previous ones the fact that both men were raised in the lower classes (Javert’s mother was a prostitute, his father a criminal) and that ultimately both live in fear: Valjean of getting caught, Javert of becoming a criminal.
Though Yglesias and August make a special effort to bring to the surface the more universal aspects of Hugo’s book, their film offers its own fascinations in detailing the zeitgeist, specifically the theories that prevailed regarding human nature, biological vs. cultural determinism, the attitude of society toward outcasts and, above all, the inherent tension between the power of conscience and the rigid rule of the law.
After a couple of disappointing projects (“The House of the Spirits,” “Smilla’s Sense of Snow”), August is back on terra ferma with “Les Miserables,” arguably his most ambitious film. The movie is directed smoothly and passionately, without the excessively sentimental and preachy tones of previous versions.
An actor’s director, August extracts forceful, multi-shaded performances from his two leads, Neeson and Rush, whose work here avoids the declamatory stiffness that marked the acting of Fredric March (miscast as Valjean) and Charles Laughton (Javert) in the 1935 film. Neeson’s combination of physical stature and lyrical expressiveness makes him a natural to play the tormented convict.
Rush judiciously avoids playing Javert as an outright villain, stressing instead the self-inflicted torture of a man fighting his own demons. Perhaps the greatest compliment to pay this adaptation is that it doesn’t contain a single weak performance: Thurman is touching in a difficult, atypical role; Danes is charming and likable as the daughter; Matheson is credible as a revolutionary idealist.
Pic’s tech credits are roundly impressive, led by Jorgen Persson’s sweeping widescreen lensing (in and around Prague and Paris), Janus Billeskov-Jansen’s smooth editing, Anna Asp’s lavish production design, Gabriella Pescucci’s rich costumes and Basil Poledouris’ effective score.