Les Miserables

Sumptuous to look at, the latest big screen incarnation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel “Les Miserables” is a handsome yet flawed production. Despite the film’s excellent cast and literate script, this version of “Les Miserables” seems constrained by it’s budget. Instead of being stirring, it’s complacent. Instead of being epic, it’s lean but not mean.

Liam Neeson is admirable as Jean Valjean, the 19th century Frenchman who spent almost two decades doing hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. Neeson stands tall as he goes from abused prisoner to a man of stature and nobility. On his way to report for his probation, Valjean takes a detour at a Bishop’s house, where he is given shelter and food. Frightened and alone, Valjean steals the Bishop’s silverware, and is immediately caught on his way out of town.

When the Bishop backs up his story, Valjean is set free, but is requested by the Bishop to rise above his crimes and help others. Instead of reporting as ordered, Valjean find his way to the small city of Vigau. Ten years later, Valjean is now the mayor of the town, and owner of a local factory. Hiding under an alias, Valjean does his best to help the people of his town, a task that becomes complicated when Inspector Jarvet (Geoffrey Rush) arrives to assume his new duty as chief of the local police.

The rub is that Jarvet was one of the guards at the prison where Valjean was sentenced, and has made it his personal mission to bring him in. The plot takes several tailspins as Valjean does his best to stay one step ahead of Jarvet, and Jarvet does everything within his power to pursue Valjean. Into this mix comes factory worker Fantine (an emaciated Uma Thurman), who loses her job, unbeknownst to Valjean, when it is discovered that she has an illegitimate daughter.

When she’s forced into prostitution and then jailed and beaten by Jarvet, Valjean comes to her rescue and takes her in. On her death bed, she insists that Valjean find and raise her little daughter Cosette (a wonderful Mimi Newman). Years later, Cosette is now a young lady (Claire Danes), and the Paris revolution is raging in the city. Despite the mass chaos surrounding him, Jarvet still pursues Valjean.

It’s a classic story, one that demands time and patience. While Rafael Yglesias’ screenplay captures the essence of Hugo’s novel, it lacks the spirit. Location cinematography in Paris and Prague by Jorgen Persson is lovely to look at, but you can’t help but feel that around every corner is a fast food chain of some sort. For all the effort that went into “Les Miserables,” it plays light. Crowd scenes that should encompass thousands of extras are fleshed out by a few hundred.

The film is way too short to cover all of Hugo’s novel, lending itself to an awkward shorthand. Just as the action or the actors pick up steam, it’s ten years later. The international cast is okay, but would have benefited from a film much larger in scope and budget. What made it to the screen is good, but not great. With this cast and director, it should have been great.

“Les Miserables” looks sharp, and features a sweeping score by Basil Poledouris. The limited production design also has it charm. What’s missing in action is the big screen adaptation of the musical that captures all of these events with emotion and soul.



Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, Claire Danes, Hans Matheson, Reine Byrnolfsson in a film directed by Bille August. Rated PG-13. 131 Min.


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