Review: Les Miserables (1998)

Whether you call yourself Christian or not, you have to admit the story of Jesus is compelling. What’s not to like? It has all the elements of a great story including a virgin birth, a charismatic character, a stirring new philosophy, a strong good vs. evil plot, great drama and a surprise, twist ending. It’s a heck of a lot more compelling than the biblical stories of Adam & Eve, David & Goliath, Jonah and the whale or even the story of Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt. Even if you cannot find yourself believing in the story of Jesus, your inner child cannot hear his story without feeling full of wonder, hope and heartbreak. Your inner child wants it to be true.

Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables is in many ways as compelling as the story of Jesus. It’s like crack for your soul and sense of pathos. It is no wonder that it has endured like a diamond, and little wonder that talented producers turned it into a musical that seemed like it would be on Broadway in perpetuity. Hugo wrote an addictive story with compelling characters, full of pathos and a good vs. evil theme. Jesus’s story is one of salvation. Jean Valjean’s story is one of coping with injustice, obsessive persecution and the ultimate redemption of the human soul. Read the book, watch it as a movie or enjoy it as a musical, and it is almost guaranteed to stick to you and leave you profoundly moved.

The musical alone has endured for a quarter of a century. The book has been made into a movie a number of times. The most recent English incarnation of Les Miserables was released in 1998 and stars Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean and Geoffrey Rush as his nemesis Inspector Javert. Having seen the musical four times (most recently locally at Signature Theatre) I never got around to seeing the movie, until recently when I ordered it from Netflix.

A movie based on this masterpiece should have left Director Bille August nervous. Stocking a film with fine actors often facilitates a movie’s success. Both Neeson and Rush have many great films to their credit. Neeson excels in playing the good guy, so Valjean is a natural for him. (Neeson even got a gig as a voiceover for God, well, Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia movies.) Choosing Geoffrey Rush as the obsessive Inspector Javert was particularly inspired, because Rush gives Javert a dose of complexity typically missing in the character. In Rush’s portrayal, Javert is not so much someone who sees all moral issues as either good or bad, but someone whose life is defined by an obsessive compulsion to follow rules. His soul cannot rest while the ex-convict Jean Valjean, who broke his parole, remains at large.

Two such compelling characters would be plenty for any book or movie, but Hugo dishes up hosts of others. There is Fantine (Uma Thurmon), a single mother who works in Valjean’s factory who unknown to Valjean is unjustly fired and is reduced to prostitution in order to support her daughter. There is Cosette (Claire Danes as an adult), her young daughter who she left in the care of a moneygrubbing innkeeper and his wife in another town. There, Cosette is forced into child labor, not allowed to play and makes her bed under a bar. To address his sin of omission, and because Valjean was earlier transformed from an angry paroled convict to a humanitarian in a transformative encounter with a priest, Valjean agrees to be a father to Cosette when Fantine dies of tuberculosis. There is also 19th century politics, a restored monarchy in France and rebellious students lead by the young student Marius (Hans Matheson), who falls in love with Cosette at first glance. There is revolution on the streets of Paris, wrenching poverty, and starving children in the streets.

There is, in fact, much more story in the novel than can be squeezed into this two hour and thirteen minute movie. Consequently, the movie moves briskly, revealing the highlights of this long novel but by necessity leaving out substantial parts of the plot. The director does manage to pack a surprising amount of story into the screen time. Les Miserables was one of Claire Dane’s first movies, and she makes a wonderful Cosette. She portrays her with much more depth and character than we get from Cosette in the musical. Hans Matheson is equally well cast as Marius, and gives his character the welcome intensity of a young man full of passion and potential.

France and Paris in the early 19th century also feel very well realized by Bille August, even if everyone is speaking British English. Neeson’s Valjean is on spot, but Valjean is a relatively reflexive character for him to play. In this version, Rush’s portrayal of Javert makes his character the most compelling. If looking for a reason to rent this movie, rent it to enjoy Rush’s delicious characterization of Javert. It is not surprising at all that this year he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Lionel Logue in King’s Speech.

I suspect that Victor Hugo would have few problems with this movie. If you somehow missed Les Miserables, this movie is a worthy adaption that hopefully will inspire you to tackle an unabridged version of Hugo’s classic book.

3.3 on my four-point scale.

[xrr rating=3.3/4]


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