Les Misérables (1998)

Les Misérables (1998)
  • Time: 159 min
  • Genre: Crime | Drama | History
  • Director: Bille August
  • Cast: Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman


Released on parole from prison, where he was sent for stealing bread for his starving relatives Jean Valjean attempts to rob a saintly bishop who has befriended him but when the bishop declines to turn him in and gifts him his silverware Jean swears to do only good, selling the silverware to finance a factory in a small town of which he has become mayor. When one of the factory workers, the down-trodden Fantine, dies Jean adopts her daughter Cosette, taking her to Paris as his own child. Here she meets and falls in love with Marius, a young student, part of the June rebellion of 1832. But Marius’s political stance puts him in danger and Jean is being relentlessly pursued by policeman Javert, who recognizes him and wants to bring him down.


  • The first point that bears emphasis about the 1998 film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” is that it is highly abridged. Even more abridged than abridged versions of the novel and even more abridged than the story used for the popular musical. Characters such as Éponine and Gavroche are absent from this adaptation. This will offend those looking for a closer adaptation of Hugo’s novel, but it does not bother me that this film focuses on the story of Valjean, Javert, Fantine, Cosette and Marius. The basic story for those unfamiliar with it, takes place in 19th century France and follows a poor thief, Jean Valjean, who is relentlessly pursued by Inspector Javert, even after reforming his ways.

    Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush are excellent as the reformed and generous ex-convict and his relentless pursuer. The rest of the performances are commendable as well, particularly from Uma Thurman as Fantine, Claire Danes as Cosette and Hans Matheson as Marius. Claire Danes, in addition to giving a solid performance, seems to fit well with the iconic image of Cosette that has come to represent musical productions of the story.

    Visually this film is impressive as well with sweeping representations of Paris, Vigo and other locations and appropriate costumes. Basil Poledouris’ score was also fitting for the story. The story, though abridged, still effectively gives us the touching tale of the plight of the poor in France, a reformed and ceaselessly generous convict, an overzealous inspector and those around them. I always enjoyed the clash of ideals and cat and mouse game between a reformed criminal and a man who clings to the ideal that no criminal can ever be reformed. This version of “Les Misérables” is recommended for those that are not uncomfortable with heavy abridgements to Hugo’s classic novel.

  • “I’ve ransomed your soul and now I give you back to God.” So declares a priest to Jean Valjean (Liam Neeson), a hardened ex-convict to whom he’s given food and shelter and who has just stolen from him.

    Years pass. Valjean has taken the priest’s words to heart and has led a good life as a respected mayor of a small village. But the past must catch up and it does in the form of the heartless, obsessive Inspector Javert (Geoffrey Rush), a man who knew Valjean the prisoner, and who is a man who lives and dies by the letter of the law. Momentarily blinded by Valjean’s respectability, Javert is soon plagued by the increasing belief that Valjean is the escaped prisoner he has been searching for.

    During the time-spanning cat and mouse game with Javert, Valjean finds himself drawn to the tubercular prostitute, Fantine (Uma Thurman, hauntingly lovely). He promises to take care of her daughter, Cosette (Claire Danes), whose budding romance with a student revolutionary (Hans Matheson) puts Valjean in Javert’s path once again.

    Director Bille August (The Best Intentions), working from a tight adaptation by Rafael Yglesias, recovers from his previous all-star literary epic, The House of the Spirits. That particular outing, with Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, and Winona Ryder, was a botched adaptation of Isabel Allende’s magical novel. This time, August gets it right although Hugo’s novel seems to be foolproof, as evidenced by the countless adaptations that have graced stage, screen and television. August allows the tale to have its epic sweep without sacrificing intimacy. Most directors often abandon this aspect of an epic but it’s the little moments that make us care about the characters.

    Thurman, whose otherworldly beauty lends an added melancholic sheen to Fantine’s fate, is stunning. Her scenes with Neeson are the heart of the film. “You are God’s creation,” Valjean tells Fantine, who has sacrificed beauty, body and soul to take care of Cosette. Thurman’s face registers disbelief, appreciation, pride, and regret. It’s a marvelous scene and Thurman plays it with the right mix of delicacy and strength.

    I was not one of Rush’s supporters when he picked up the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the emotionally troubled pianist, David Helfgott, in Shine. To me, Helfgott remained a one-dimensional character rather than a fully realized human being. I am, however, highly impressed with his portrayal of Javert. Rush’s Javert is all armor and no flesh. His dogged pursuit of Javert is the only sign that there is life in him. As the pieces start to fit, you watch Rush and his fervor is such that you swear you can see him, feel him smell Valjean’s blood in the air.

    In contrast to Rush’s coldblooded stoicism, Neeson is all raging flesh and blood. The most amazing thing about his performance is the way he fills in the gaps. Scenes of his 19 years in prison and the 10 years that he and Cosette spend in a convent are only hinted at, yet Neeson manages to carry those unseen years in his eyes. The body may be comported differently but in his eyes, you see the 19 years, you see the struggle, you see the pain, you see the rage. When he finally reveals his past to the beseeching Cosette, the great man falls. Neeson unleashes Valjean’s demons with such broken ferocity that all you can do is look, listen and thank God for creating such an actor during our lifetime.

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