Modern audiences are more likely to be familiar with Les Misérables from the pop-Broadway musical rather than Victor Hugo’s original tome. Adapted several times for the cinema, this latest effort does a superb job of translating the characters, story, and heart of the novel to the screen.
Liam Neeson stars as Jean Valjean. As a young man, Valjean stole some bread to satisfy his hunger…and he was sentenced to 19 years of hard labor for his crimes. Prison hardened him, and on his release he seems doomed to a life of crime and squalor. However, an unexpected act of compassion changes his outlook on life, and he vows to become a better man.
However, he runs up against one man who doesn’t believe in reform. Inspector Javert (Geoffrey Rush) is an obsessive law abider. He has no tolerance for anyone who breaks the rules, even with benign intentions. He once served as a guard at the labor camp where Valjean served, and after Valjean breaks his parole, Javert devotes himself to bringing him to justice.
Two women also get caught up in the struggle. Fantine (Uma Thurman) is an unwed mother suffocating in an unforgiving society. Her daughter, Cosette (Mimi Newman, and later, Claire Danes), is her life, yet she cannot afford to raise her. Instead, Cosette is sent to live with a cruel foster family which extorts money from Fantine, and forces Cosette into a life little better than a slave.
Director Bille August manages to create a faithful adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, which, though omitting some of the political undertones, remains true to the overall story and tone of the book. Hopefully you won’t, as some clueless members of the audience did, wonder where all the songs went. The movie manages to be completely engrossing without the musical’s flourishes.
The experience is bolstered by strong performances throughout, though Neeson and Rush deservedly take center stage with their core roles. Neeson in particular deserves kudos for his portrayal of a man trying to do good, but continually haunted by his past.
The supporting cast is also extraordinary. The only actor who dims in comparison is Hans Matheson, playing the revolutionary, Marius. The film slightly loses its luster during his brief love affair, but it is transitory, and truly only distracting when contrasted with the rest of the film.
The novel Les Misérables is, by any account, an epic, both in its scope and in its length. While it would be nearly impossible to cram everything from its pages into a two hour movie, this latest attempt does an admirable job at the translation. It, too, is an epic…and one worth seeing.