Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s insanely long 1862 novel about crime and social injustice, has long been a target for adaptation. There have been at least nine feature film versions, the enormously successful Boublil and Schönberg stage musical – even four animes. Each adaptation has faced the same challenges: it’s a very long book, with a story occuring over the course of 18 years, and spreads its focus over an array of characters. The most recent film version, directed in 2012 by Tom Hooper, adapted the musical in a fairly slipshod and ill-advised fashion – despite some critical acclaim. The next most-recent English language adaptation is Bille August’s 1998 effort, starring Liam Neeson, Claire Danes, and Geoffrey Rush. It is a superior picture in almost every respect.
Jean Valjean (Neeson), an embittered and broken paroled convict, skips probation in search of a new life. Nine years later he has established a new identity and prospered as a small town business leader and mayor. His life is disrupted with Javert (Geoffrey Rush), a police officer and former gaol guard, recognises him from prison and works to reveal his true name.
Screenwriter Rafael Yglesias does a marvellous job of adapting Hugo for film. While the story has been stripped of many subplots and details, it compresses the core components into a tightly constructed two hour narrative. The core of Les Miserables is the contrast and balance between law and justice: Javert is all law, inflexible and devastating, and pursues Valjean incessantly for breaking rules. Valjean, of course, is transformed from his experiences into a just and generous man. His good deeds over the course of his post-criminal life far outweigh the petty crime he originally committed.
This balance relies on strong performances, and August’s film benefits enormously from the casting of Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush. Neeson is perfectly cast for Valjean’s sheer physicality, and does an excellent job of playing the character’s gradual transformation from one stage of his life to the next. By contrast, Rush’s Javert is straight as an arrow, never-changing, but infused with an edge of unnecessary cruelty. The two actors drive the film. While Uma Thurman is excellent as Fantine, her role has been pared down considerably to fit the two-hour running time. Claire Danes has much more to do in the film’s second half, although her role does not feel like much of a challenge – essentially relying on the same emotional beats as in her Romeo + Juliet two years earlier. Several of the supporting players stand out, notably Lenny James as the revolutionary Enjolras and Peter Vaughan as the Bishop Myriel.
The film was shot in Prague, which lends an excellent air of early 19th century Paris – except for moments when it becomes to apparent that it’s Prague. One wonders if there was musical issues involved in the making of the film: Basil Poledouris’ extant score is decent enough, but the original theatrical trailer listed Gabriel Yared in the role. Either way, the Boublil/Schönberg stage score looms over any adaptation; it’s so iconic that anything else feels somehow lacking.
Les Miserables works as a strong period drama with rich characters, and as a reasonably faithful adaptation of a literary masterpiece. Rarely does the quality rise to feel particularly striking or transcendent, but to criticise that too much would be to punish the film for simply being really quite good instead of exceptional. If Hooper’s hopelessly compromised musical effort was too lacklustre for you, August’s attempt may remedy your disappointment.