Les Misérables (1998)

Film review: Les Misérables (1998), directed by Bille August

lesmiserables1998A few weeks ago, I mentioned how the 1978 TV movie adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel was very detailed, and alluded to other adaptations who perhaps were not so detailed.

Namely this one.

This adaptation skips a lot of the details and backstory and begins with paroled convict Valjean (Liam Neeson) spending the night at a bishop’s house, and he tries to take off with the silverware, but the bishop says he can have them in order to start a new life.

Nine years later, Valjean’s some sort of industrial magnate in a little town (where my fellow Swede Reine Brynolfsson is a police captain). Single mum Fantine (Uma Thurman) works at Valjean’s factory but is fired when they learn she has a daughter out of wedlock, because down with that sort of thing.

Valjean has no interest in either of them at this point, as Javert (Geoffrey Rush) is a new arrival in town. That is, Javert a.k.a. a guard from the prison where Valjean spent 19 long years. Javert sees Valjean and gets suspicious: “Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere?”

Valjean ends up taking Fantine into his care, after saving her from some men who’d rather use her “goods” for free than pay for them, and as he nurses her back to whatever sort of health she might have left in her poor body, he also promises he’ll look after her daughter, Cosette (Mimi Newman).

Eventually, they make it to Paris. Cosette grows into a young woman (Claire Danes), who falls in love with handsome rebel Marius (Hans Matheson), and there’s a revolution and Javert has never given up the hope of finding Valjean and bringing him to justice. I think this film sort of forgets to mention that Valjean only lied about being out on probation – he is an escaped convict. At least according to the ’78 adaptation.

Also featuring Toby Jones as a doorkeeper, Shane Hervey as Gavroche, and Julian Rhind-Tutt as Bamatabois.

As I had seen the detailed ’78 version not long before this one, I knew the bits that were omitted in this version. Valjean’s backstory is hinted at, or flashbacked, rather than lived through, and they skip the epilogue bit. This makes for a slightly shorter film (by, what, 20 minutes?).

This cast was also good, although perhaps a lot more familiar to a modern audience. The story itself still doesn’t really grab me. Here, Valjean comes across as a man with a secret, rather than as an idiot with a secret, so I guess that’s an improvement. Other than that, it’s still a miserable story – no pun intended – where people are being chased, or unhappy, or both. Still not my cuppa tea, but it’s a well-made film.

3 out of 5 sewers.

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