Sony // 1998 // 134 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 25th, 2012
The legend comes to life.
"I order you to forgive yourself."
Jean Valjean (Liam Neeson, Schindler's List) spent nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. However, with the aid of some kind-hearted members of the clergy, Valjean was able to start a new life for himself. Nearly a decade later, he's become the mayor of a small French town and is widely-regarded as a truly noble, kind-hearted man. However, Valjean is also forced to mask his true identity, as he violated his parole shortly after being released from prison and could be sent back to jail if discovered.
At long last, the past catches up with Valjean in the form of Police Inspector Javert (Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech), a man who knew Valjean as a prisoner and has a suspicion about the mayor's true identity. The noble ex-con initially determines to turn himself in, but changes his mind when he's tasked with caring for the orphaned daughter of a prostitute (Uma Thurman, Kill Bill: Volume 1). Valjean flees in search of a safe place where he can raise his child in peace, but how long will it be before the past finally catches up with him?
Just as Tom Hooper's lavish musical version of Les Miserables hits theatres, the good folks at Sony have offered up Billie August's decidedly non-tuneful cinematic adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic novel. It's a tale which has actually been adapted many times over the course of the past century: a silent film by the Lumiere Brothers, a 1935 version with Fredric March and Charles Laughton, a 1952 production with Michael Rennie and Robert Newton, a 1978 adaptation with Anthony Perkins, a 1995 film starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, a 2000 miniseries with Gerard Depardieu...and that's merely a small sampling. The 1998 version isn't really a definitive take on Hugo's novel (indeed, it would seem impossible to capture the full scope of Hugo's massive novel in just two or three hours), but it works superbly on its own terms as a straightforward, impressively lean Great Illustrated Classics take on the tale.
The most impressive thing about August's take is how naturally and smoothly it unfolds. August and screenwriter Rafael Yglesias have trimmed or removed subplots which might prove too cumbersome for an 134-minute film (even going so far as to remove Eponine entirely), allowing the focus to remain on the complicated and compelling relationship between Valjean and Javert. In some versions of the tale, Javert has a tendency to come across as nothing more than an obstinate stick-in-the-mud. As played by Geoffrey Rush, he's a more philosophical figure: he believes wholeheartedly that any man who has committed a criminal act in the past will always remain a criminal at heart. He's seen too many convicts return to their old habits after being released to believe in something so fantastic as redemption. Rush has a tendency to give big, flashy performances (often to delightful effect, it should be noted), but he does impressively subtle work in this film and ensures that Javert's final scene has all of the power it demands.
Liam Neeson is predictably stellar in the role of Valjean, capturing (as he did so often in the '90s) a nice balance between soulful sensitivity and earthy masculinity. His finest scene may be a moment in which he confronts a group of former jailmates in a courtroom; a scene of painful honesty which leaves a huge impact. Uma Thurman handles the role of Fantine with weary grace, and Claire Danes successfully carries much of the third act as a willful, frustrated Cosette (the character is far more interesting in this tale than she is in many adaptations). The usual battle scenes and climactic moments of violence which mark the later portions of the novel are all here, but August never really permits Les Miserables to transform into an epic. It's fundamentally an intimate, character-driven take on the tale which is more interested in conflicting individual philosophies than in the larger historical drama unfolding around the assorted players.
Les Miserables (Blu-ray) offers a solid 1080p/2.40:1 transfer which allows viewers to appreciate the level of craftsmanship on display in the visual department. This is largely a soft, dimly-lit film (as many historical dramas tend to be), but this hi-def release prevents it from ever seeming murky. Detail is exceptional throughout, with facial detail standing out in particular. The subdued palette and grimy setting prevent the image from ever really dazzling, but the solid transfer makes it easy to get lost inside this impoverished world. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is strong as well, highlighted by a stirring Basil Poledouris score which successfully captures both the darkness and nobility of the tale. The action scenes prove immersive and rich, dialogue is well-captured throughout and the sound design is impressive. The only supplement on the disc is a brief featurette spotlighting the 2012 version of Les Miserables.
Billie August's Les Miserables may not hit the dizzying emotional highs of Tom Hooper's lavish take on the tale, but it's a more consistently satisfying film. Lover's of Hugo's novel may find it a bit thin, but August deserves commendation for creating a movie which works on its own terms as a historical drama.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Japanese)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Portuguese)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 134 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13