With the musical Les Miserables making a big splash this Christmas, older versions of the story inevitably find their way to Blu-Ray at about the same time. There have been a lot of takes on this story, after all: at least a dozen, not counting concert videos of the stage musical. Not least among them is Bille August’s straight-laced production from 1998. It strips the story down to the bones and removes a lot of juicy elements in the process. But bolstered by a strong pair of leads, it also makes for a reliable introduction to the story: a sort of cinematic Cliffs Notes to get you up to speed quickly. Hit the jump for the full review.
About those leads… the film really is nothing without them. Liam Neeson’s haunted eyes and Geoffrey Rush’s tightly wound madness deliver everything we need, and when they’re off the screen, the movie dies in front of us. Their pitch-perfect casting holds it up single-handedly, letting us feel the core of Victor Hugo’s novel and the conflicts it depicted. Neeson plays Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who breaks parole after receiving a windfall from a kindly priest. Rush plays Javert, a police inspector who views Valjean’s freedom as an affront to God and will do anything to return him to chains. This version focuses solely on their twenty-year chase, with the remaining characters serving solely as support.
Fans of the musical may be surprised by the changes that entails. Eponine is gone, and with her goes the love triangle between her, Cossette (Claire Danes) and Marius (Hans Matheson). We see just a tiny bit of the Thenardiers – the amoral innkeepers who raise Cossette until Valjean comes to claim her on a mission of mercy – and Marius’s revolutionary friends barely merit a nod. Those departures simplify the narrative considerably, leaving it much more intimate (and less epic) than more spectacular versions.
It works because Neeson and Rush invest the project with so much of themselves. Valjean’s exhausted strength becomes an unspoken thread keeping everything on target, while Rush’s quiet, obsessive delivery speaks to a man holding his personal demons back through sheer force of will. Their scenes together are positively electric: the only time this version approaches the musical in terms of quality. August is smart enough to let them take center stage, making good use of the European locations, but otherwise keeping a tight rein on the production design.
He also lends the story an underlying sadness that the bolder strokes of the musical sometimes miss. The tragedies here come not larger than life, but with dismal normality, and its characters often struggle with them in futile silence. At times, the tone defeats it, but most of the time it gives Les Miserables a distinct point of view that nonetheless stays true to Victor Hugo’s original novel.
The rest of the cast, unfortunately, can’t keep pace. Uma Thurman tries hard, but she’s no victim and her doomed Fantine strikes all the wrong notes. Cossette comes across as more spoiled than innocent, and August clearly doesn’t know what to do with Marius or his friends. None of them constitute fatal flaws, but their turns do highlight how tough it can be to handle this material well.
And despite his missteps, August by and large succeeds at his task. Though outflanked by the towering giant of the stage musical, and perhaps now permanently eclipsed by the 2012 adaptation, his Les Miserables still brings honor and insight to one of the greatest stories ever told. Its abridged nature costs it dearly, but it takes advantage of the trade by staying on target and sticking to the core of the tale. It works best as a footnote, though a footnote with its own way of looking at things… and two fantastic characters enriched and honored by their portrayals here.
As expected, the Blu-ray is super-stripped down, with just the movie itself and a five-minute making-of doc. The good news is that the transfer is well-done – the movie looks great – and the lowered price won’t break anyone’s budget if they choose to pick it up.