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Weekly Alibi A Novel Approach

By Devin D. O'Leary

MAY 11, 1998:  Despite the fact that he's been dead for a hundred years, Victor Hugo is hotter than ever. Ever since his career-reviving upturn in Disney's musical version of Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo's name has been tossed around Hollywood cocktail parties as the hottest screen property since that William Shakespeare guy. Now comes a feature film version of Hugo's greatest work, Les Misérables. Danish director Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror) and prolific American novelist Rafael Yglesias (who adapted his own novel for the Jeff Bridges/Rosie Perez film Fearless) have sculpted a concise and immensely satisfying version of Hugo's epic tale.

Liam Neeson is Hugo's protagonist, Jean Valjean. The backdrop is early 19th-century France. The story picks up as Valjean has just been released from prison after 20 years for the unpardonable crime of stealing a loaf of bread. A fateful encounter with a kindly country bishop and a surprising act of forgiveness sends the hard-bitten Valjean off on a new course. The story then jumps to 1822 when a reinvented (and rechristened) Valjean finds himself the humble and hardworking mayor of a booming French town called Vigau. Following the bishop's example from years earlier, Valjean shows compassion and wisdom to all around him. Fate steps back into Valjean's life, however, in the form of two portentous events. Fantine (Uma Thurman), a worker with "loose morals" (she has had a child out of wedlock), is fired from Valjean's brick factory. At the same time, Javert (Geoffrey Rush), a new police inspector, is posted to the growing metropolis.

Javert, as fate would have it, was one of Valjean's jailers in the harsh labor camp he inhabited for two decades. The inscrutable inspector recognizes Valjean but cannot prove he is actually the long-lost parole jumper. Meanwhile, having lost her job at the factory, Fantine turns to prostitution. One night, she receives a beating at the hands of the cruel Javert and is discovered by Valjean. Now fully apprised of, and appropriately mortified by, his casual firing of the girl, Valjean takes the sickly Fantine under his wing. Despite Valjean's love and attention, Fantine's health deteriorates rapidly, and she makes Valjean promise to raise her estranged young daughter Cosette as his own.

Forced out of his shell of lies when another convict is captured and branded as Valjean the breadthief, the respected mayor of Vigau admits his true identity. Javert now has the ammunition he needs to arrest Valjean, but the wily ex-con is one step ahead. Valjean locates Cosette and absconds to Paris to raise the girl. Again, Valjean reinvents himself--and, again, he finds himself hunted by the unstoppable Javert.

Whereas an American director would have filled the screen with glossy vistas and pretty costumes, the European-bred August creates a gritty, believable view of early 19th-century life. Among the eye-for-detail elements, savvy set dressers have covered the picturesque streets of Paris with heaps of horse dung. August's Revolutionary-era Paris looks, feels and even smells accurate. The script, meanwhile, manages to shed some of the subplots and a few minor characters. Politics have been sidelined in favor of human drama. Hardcore fans of the musical or literary versions may find themselves upset. Most others, though, will probably be quite impressed with the tight adaptation and still shining impact of Hugo's work. Les Misérables is one of the greatest epic novels of all time, and Yglesias' script remains reverent to the tone of Hugo's redemptive tale.

Neeson and Rush are a well-matched pair, going toe-to-toe with each other from start to finish. Neeson gives a brilliant, multi-layered performance, and Rush keeps his character from falling too deeply into cartoonish villainy. His Javert is simply a man who adheres far too rigidly to his beloved system of rules and laws. In the end, when he becomes obsessed with finding Valjean after a lifetime of failure, his descent into lawlessness is quite believably executed. Thurman is well-cast (I daresay typecast) as the pretty and sickly looking love interest. Claire Danes (as the teenaged Cosette) is the weakest link in the acting chain here. Though effective, her role seems to demonstrate the limits of Danes' acting talents (of which crying on cue seems to be the primary talent). As in Romeo + Juliet, you can pass the time by counting the number of times Danes gets her jaw to quiver spasticly before bursting into tears.

This newest adaptation (the third) of Les Misérables is far from perfect. It's not a passionate soul-shaker, and a late-arriving love story between Cosette and a hunky revolutionary seems too squarely aimed at Danes' Romeo + Juliet fanbase. Still, the filmmakers have created a moving historical drama with an unmistakable literary pedigree behind it and none of Hollywood's splashy, phony glamour in front of it. Somebody better sign this Victor Hugo guy to a three-picture deal--and quick!

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