Les Miserables are the ones in the audienceBy Vladimir Zelevinsky
Directed by Bille August
Screenplay by Rafael Yglesias
Based on the novel by Victor Hugo
Starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, Claire Danes
Imagine that you are looking at a famous painting, one you know is a masterpiece, supreme in its detail, balance, color, and composition - and imagine you are looking at it through a layer of very dirty glass. You can still get the overall impression of the artwork, and a few details gleam here and there through the mud, but all the colors are muted virtually to the point of fusing together, the shapes have lost their bold outlines, most of the details have disappeared, and you're not even sure how much of the painting is completely covered and invisible to you. Sure, you are still looking at something vaguely impressive; but this only makes you regret even more that you can't see the real thing.
Victor Hugo's Les Miserables is the best novel ever written, bar none. It is a sprawling mass of 1,200 pages, which, to a large extent, consists of digressions. For example, Hugo spends 70 pages describing in minute detail the Battle of Waterloo, only mentioning a recurring character in the last paragraph. But these digressions work as wonderfully as the chapters devoted to plot. The chapters about criminal slang of the Paris underworld, or that detail the history and the inner workings of the literal Paris underworld, its sewers, are highly exciting to read, and the story is the stuff that grand adventures are made of. The novel has spawned many films, a musical (wildly successful financially and only mildly so artistically), and now there's yet another movie. Watching it, I felt like I was staring through dirty glass, and the utterly inept projection job (Sony Cheri, consider yourselves warned), which failed to achieve perfect focus during the two-hour-plus running time, is only partly to blame for that.
The story begins with the just-released convict Jean Valjean (Liam Neeson) receiving a lesson about forgiveness and redemption from a small-time bishop in a provincial town. From that moment on, Valjean, turned almost into a beast by his 19-year imprisonment, starts the long and hard journey of self-improvement - tuning himself into a true human being. Or, at least, that's how the novel goes. In the film, after the opening sequence there's a cut, a subtitle "Nine Years Later," and the appearance of an almost saintly Valjean.
For the remaining two hours he goes through some of Hugo's plot, although the most exciting adventures are, regrettably, left out. He is chased by the police in the form of the grimly determinate inspector Javert (Geoffrey Rush), takes care of a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Fantine (Uma Thurman), and brings up Fantine's daughter, Cosette (played as an adult by Claire Danes). He fights in the streets and on the barricades of Paris during the armed uprising, crawls through the sewers, and so on. And very little of this matters. The marvel of Hugo's book was the way the spiritual journey of Valjean was mirrored by his real-life adventures; since there is no spiritual journey in this film, all of the adventures feel largely inconsequential.
However, let me pretend that I haven't read the novel - the novels are usually better than the films based on them anyway (rare exceptions like The English Patient excepted). How does the movie work on its own terms?
Not so great, I'm afraid. Director Bille August made an excellent family epic film Best Intentions back in 1991, which, despite its almost total lack of action and three-hour running time, is still much more exciting than this work. August films most of this movie with bland static shots, and this gets very boring. The action is mostly blah (there's only one crowd scene), and the cinematography limits the color to dirty shades of blue, dark green, brown, and black. This is one of the least visually exciting pictures I've seen in quite a while; only a rare shot (the aforementioned crowd scene with bright uniforms of soldiers, for example) is interesting.
This leaves the bulk of the responsibility on the shoulders of the screenwriter and the actors. The screenplay doesn't work too well - while preserving some elements of the book, it jettisons a good deal of character motivation, which results in quite a few "Why is he doing that?"moments. It's most obvious in the romantic subplot, where Cosette and her beaux, dashing revolutionary Marius, are forced to perform totally ridiculous actions and utter the corniest dialogue.
Acting is, however, a noticeable asset. While Liam Neeson isn't given much to work with (other than during the first five and the last five minutes), he has enough screen presence to keep the viewers' attention - Geoffrey Rush is very good and Uma Thurman is excellent. On the other hand, poor Claire Danes is saddled with a ridiculous part, and her acting is all wrong. Her Cosette spends half of her screen time whining, and the other half staring at Marius as if she were a hungry dog and he a bone.
However, lest I be too negative, this is still based on an excellent book, and it shines through despite the mud. There are quite a few powerful scenes - in the court, when another man is accused of being Valjean; in Thenardier's inn, where the owner and Valjean are playing a mental game with Cosette as a prize; in the Paris sewers, which do look quite impressive; and a few others. Even the tacked-on crowd-pleasing ending works very well. Of course, I would very much rather recommend you read the book (and get the full translation, none of those abridged ones) -but there is an echo of greatness in the film version.
Finally, let me warn you that the trailer is highly misleading. Enya's (or Enya-like) music doesn't play at any moment in the movie. The love story is only a subplot, and by far the worst one of the movie at that. And the two most effective shots in the trailer - the soaring dove, and Valjean tossing the bits of his torn yellow passport into the wind - are nowhere to be seen. Here's for truth in advertising!