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Film Review Acting, atmosphere make for convincing ‘Le Miz’

February 15, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Michael Gray

LES MISERABLES. Columbia Pictures. Directed by Bille August. Starring Liam Neeson, Uma Thurman, Geoffrey Rush and Claire Danes.

The Broadway musical version of “Les Miserables” has been so hugely successful over the last 13 years as to almost overwhelm the perception that this epic tale had a previous life as one of the greatest novels in the canon of French literature. To remind us that it wasn’t always about singing and prancing around onstage, we have a new film version made by Danish film director Bille August, and starring Liam Neeson. Neeson neither sings nor dances during the course of the film, nor is he periodically interrupted by a chorus of harlots offering their services in verse. The screenplay remains faithful to the core elements of Victor Hugo’s book, and converts the hefty tome of 1,300 pages into a leaner, more focused work that clocks in at a little over two hours.

“Les Miserables” has been a source of inspiration for filmmakers since the silent era, and has been adapted for the screen a dozen times. The earliest version was made in France a mere 47 years after Hugo put the quill down on the manuscript and said “fin.” More recently, an update by Claude Lelouche three years ago starred Jean Paul Belmondo as an ex-boxer helping Jewish refugees escape from the occupying German forces in France during World War II. In his portrayal of reformed convict Jean Valjean in the current film’s lead role, Neeson follows such distinguished predecessors as Frederic Marsh, Michael Rennie and Jean Gabin.

If you’ve led a troglodytic life or been incarcerated without cable, and managed to Miz out since the musical changed our lives in ’85, you’ll be unaware that “Les Miserables” is a romantic tale of redemption. A ruthless police officer and a fugitive from France’s prisons are pitted against each other over a 20-year period leading up to the July revolution of 1832. The amoral brute Valjean, his dignity and humanity eroded by 19 years in jail for stealing bread, experiences an epiphany when a stranger whom he has robbed and beaten treats him with respect and forgives him. He decides to lead an honorable life, and works hard to become the esteemed mayor of a small town. He prospers as the owner of a successful factory, and treats his employees fairly and generously. But he can’t escape his past, and a new police officer in town recognizes him from his prison days. Inspector Javert is determined to send him back there for life, for breaking parole.

Played by Geoffrey Rush, Javert becomes Valjean’s nemesis, and pursues him obsessively for decades. Valjean narrowly evades capture several times, and their various showdowns along the way change Javert’s notion of what distinguishes a good man from a criminal. Rush’s performance provides a complex foil to Neeson’s combination of brutish strength and gentle decency. The son of a petty thief and a whore, his character fears that he may fall from grace himself as Valjean has done. As an inflexible zealot, he believes that such a fall would be as permanent and irredeemable for him as for Valjean. Javert applies the law with ruthless efficiency, and with a warped idealism that makes him a quasi-villian for whom the audience can feel a tinge of sympathy, even as he relentlessly hounds model citizen Valjean.

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Neeson is compelling as the humble, kind-hearted Valjean, leading a placid life as an act of will, and always holding in check the brutality and cruelty that lurk beneath the surface. This straining to do good, despite the malevolent undercurrents of his nature, gives his character contrasting shades that were lacking from his saintly portrayal of Michael Collins last year.

As the object of Valjean’s chaste affections, Uma Thurman plays Fantine, a luckless prostitute who drifted into a life on the streets after losing her job for having a child out of wedlock. Thurman gives a gutsy performance as the ragged pauper, stretching her range with levels of bedragglement unimaginable in her previous work. Valjean takes care of Fantine as her health declines, and on her deathbed he promises to raise her daughter Cosette as though she was his own. He carries out his promise, sheltering the child from her past and from the outside world.

Ten years later, the teenage Cossette (Claire Danes) falls in love with a student revolutionary who unwittingly leads Javert to her adoptive father at the climax of the film, the Paris riots of 1832. The solid performances by the three principals, Neeson, Rush, and Thurman, are let down by the decidedly uncharismatic student leaders, who seem quite devoid of real revolutionary fire.

Though the momentum may falter when Thurman’s Fantine expires and the film fast-forwards 10 years to Cossette’s blossoming, the whole production maintains a robust feel for 19th century France

throughout. The stubble and grime of Paris in the days before indoor

plumbing, convey a harsher reality than that of typical Hollywood

costume dramas, with their peasants in neatly pressed tunics and

blow-dried sideburns. The members of Bille August’s cast blend

organically with the squalor they inhabit, and don’t keep reminding us that they’re thespians by speaking with BBC World Service accents and flashing excellent orthodontic work.

But, as is so often the case when a classic novel is given lavish

cinematic treatment, a stellar cast and convincing mise-en-scene, any

evaluation of the film will have the “why bother?” question skulking in the background. It’s true that the screenplay trims to manageable

proportions the sprawling narrative of a novel that few Miz fans will ever read. The film may even inspire some of us to go back to the book and give it another try. But maybe the world has Miz fatigue from the inevitability of the Broadway version, and needs a rest from the whole experience. “Les Miserables” has already had its fair share of cinematic outings. How many other worthy stories from that era lie neglected, never having seen the light of a projector bulb?

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