LES MISERABLES (1998) ** 1/2
Now, that was easy. It is harder to explain the ** 1/2 rating. I sometimes run into people who pay me the compliment of taking my newspaper reviews seriously, too seriously, and say "we only see what you gave more than three stars to."
This is disturbing. The whole system of ratings via stars is approximate, does not allow for nuances. New movies are generally written up almost immediately after they have been watched, so that there is no time for delays that give reviewers to reconsider. First impressions can be tricky. The most reliable opinions (and ratings) are after second or third screenings, often years apart. Finally, lower ratings are not necessarily dishonorable. Many a **1/2 or even ** movie can be interesting, amusing, pleasant, entertaining, worth seeing.
"Les Miserables" has its ups and downs. It's neither really good nor really bad. It's just OK. I'm glad I saw it; I probably won't see it again soon; I find it watchable though unmemorable and not contributing anything to the art of film.
This movie, like many others, carries the seed of its own frailties. Pictures, including popular ones, from great books, very seldom make great films, especially when the book is massive, like "War and Peace" or "Les Miserables".
The protean, visionary Victor Hugo (1802-1885) wanted to be "the sonorous echo" of his century. He did just that in his huge, sprawling, socially conscious novel, which came out in 1862. Starting with the silent cinema, it was made into films 15 or more times, in France, America, Mexico, Japan, Italy, and elsewhere. All those works were essentially abbreviated anthologies of various sections of the novel. None could do that tumultuous book justice.
The closest any version came to this was the 1934 French film directed by Raymond Bernard from a script by him and Andre Lang. It was 305 minutes long, made as a triptych : "A Tempest in a Head," (120 minutes); "The Thenardiers," (90 min) and "Liberty, Beloved Liberty" (95 min.). The following year, the same two writers plus an American colleague, condensed the three films into the under-two-hours Hollywood "Les Miserables" (1935) the best-known US version, starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton.
This year's picture was directed by Denmark's Bille August, twice winner of the Cannes Film Festival's Golden Palm, for "Pelle the Conqueror" and the Ingmar Bergman-scripted "The Best Intentions." August 's earlier "Twist and Shout" is also notable. I think that with the best intentions, the filmmakers cannot conquer Victor Hugo's epic novel, no matter how they twist it. But they did come up with a version acceptable by the public at large. Why? Because, whereas the novel was once read world-wide by millions of students, literati, and non-literati, its public today is minimal. (I had this confirmed by my poll of dozens of students and faculty on a major campus). On the other hand, many --though still a tiny fraction of the former masses of readers-- have seen the musical version of Les Miz.
It is impossible to summarize the original story, but many people know at least the bare bones of it. A famished Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread, for which he spends 19 years at inhuman forced labor. Released, he robs a kindly bishop of silver forks and knives. He is brought before the prelate by the police. The good man of God fibs, says he had made a gift of the items to Valjean, and adds silver candlesticks.
The gesture redeems bitter Valjean who, with this capital, gradually becomes a factory owner in a town, as well as its beloved mayor. To save a half-wit con identified as Valjean, he (the real one) volunteers testimony in court that he is Valjean. Having come to the help of dismissed, consumptive, dying factory girl Fantine, he flees, but saves Fantine's child Cosette from the clutches of the nasty people who kept her (for money). Under one of his many pseudonyms, he adopts her, cares for her, later helps her and her suitor, the rebel Marius, and so on.
The constant in the book is Inspector Javert's merciless pursuit of Valjean. This, the movie does well, although it simplifies both the hunter and the hunted. There is not enough footage to get into the heads and hearts of those two, especially dour Javert, a clinical case who combines pathologically cruelty, masochism, sadism, doggedness and a perverted sense of values. Javert has an odd sense of duty and morality. He is what later in that century would be called a "determinist" but without the understanding of the determinist scientists.
Roughly, this goes: people are the products of their background and their heredity. Hugo (and later, more pointedly even, Emile Zola) blamed society and other exterior causes rather than the victims of this miserable state of things. (Father Flanagan of Boys' Town was in their lineage with his "There's no such thing as a bad boy").
Javert is convinced that once a thief, always a thief, that the sooner criminals are punished, the better. In addition, Javert's father was a thief, his mother a prostitute. The Inspector's own sense of guilt, his hidden compulsion to make up for his progenitors, make him over-react, like a puritan who goes to extremes, like a religious fanatic who has converted. Like those extremists who are "more royalist than the King," Javert, seeking his own redemption in twisted ways, becomes maniacal about upholding the Law at any price..
He is a fascinating character, far and away the movie's most interesting, even though there's a lack of screen-time to dig deeply into his psyche. With the elimination of a host of persons and events, including main character Eponine and most social and political conditions of the times, the movie becomes primarily an old-fashioned melodrama in which we root for the hero and hiss at the villain.
Each of the men is limited to two expressions: Liam Neeson's worry and sympathy, Australia's Geoffrey Rush's (of "Shine" fame) nastiness and monomania. They both get much mileage out of them. Oddly, they age minimally over the years, something that did not happen in the marathon French version. There, Harry Baur and Charles Vanel were the kind of burly actors who looked older, as in all their films. Still, the current lead players are convincing.
Thurman-Fantine is given all the stops of pathos to pull, and pull well, through make-up and dribbling blood; young Cosette sounds far too American; older Cosette-Danes fails to touch or interest us; Matheson-Marius is close to a nonentity. The sketchiness of the Cosette-Marius "amours" helps neither performer. But the smallish part of Beauvais, the small town's Police Chief whom Javert outranks --and repels -- is excellent.
Missing too is the sociological canvas Hugo has painted. There's enough in the film to show how miserable the existence of the poor was, but not enough to hammer that point, or that following the French Revolution, France became a Republic but not a democracy in today's sense. The historical canvas is vague. The press information speaks wrongly of the 1832 Revolution, when there was only a very short-lived uprising led mostly by liberal young students. The viewers can have no notion that after the 1789 Revolution, came successively: monarchy's fall, the First French Republic, Napoleon, the return of royalty (Louis XVIII), King Charles X, the July Revolution (1830 's "Three Glorious Days") and Louis-Philippe, the "Citizen King." The picture does not orient us about this, or such mundane yet helpful matters as Valjean's fortune, his good deeds as Mayor, the distances between places, the sewers of Paris, and much else.
Production values are good, with period reconstructions done in the Czech Republic, Paris, and studios. The score misses its chance to use period popular or folk music. It's generic, unnoticeable background stuff.