Les Miserables

on May 01, 1998 by Luisa F. Ribeiro
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   Powerful stars and stunning production design and location shooting highlight this umpteenth screen version of Victor Hugo's epic morality tale of redemption, honor, love and obsession in 19th-century revolutionary France. Screenwriter Rafael Yglesias hones down Hugo's massive, wandering epistle by rightly focusing on the complex relationship between reformed thief Jean Valjean (Liam Neeson) and his relentless persecutor, Inspector Javert (Geoffrey Rush). Both Neeson and Rush respond by give riveting performances in the roles.
   The familiar story follows the moral development of Valjean, who is bitterly distrustful of authority, upon being paroled after nearly two decades of brutal imprisonment for petty theft. Reformed by the goodness of a clergyman, Valjean assumes a new identity and eventually rises to such success as a benevolent village leader that he is made mayor. The implacable Javert becomes the village's chief inspector and, having served as a guard in the same prison with Valjean, soon begins to suspect the true identity of the mayor. Valjean then rouses Javert's ire when he intervenes with the inspector's attempted arrest of a penniless prostitute, Fantine (Uma Thurman), who is racked by disease and frantic over how to provide support for her illegitimate young daughter, Cosette. When Valjean publicly admits his real identity to defend a man being tried in his place, then flees the authorities to rescue Cosette, Javert's suspicions are confirmed and he hounds Valjean down the years throughout Paris.
   Rush's Javert is full of fascinating dimension, bringing a moving sense of tragedy to Javert's humorless obsession. He is well matched by Neeson, who exhibits tremendous presence (both physically and emotionally) while keeping Valjean's redemptive transformation poignantly human. The narrative unfortunately bogs down with the modernized and strangely juvenile romance between the adolescent Cosette (Claire Danes, struggling with an inexplicable English accent) and the young revolutionary, Marius (Hans Matheson). Matheson's wispy boyishness hardly excites an inspiring vision of either love or France's revolutionary future.
   Director August and cinematographer Jorgen Persson create breathtakingly intimate scenes of the harsh life of the peasantry and also sweeping spectacle of the countryside (location shooting in the Czech Republic and Paris), yet falter at moments, such as the oddly sterile attack by soldiers on rebellious peasants in Paris streets. But these flaws are inconsequential in this attractive, solid rendering of this popular classic. Starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman and Claire Danes. Directed by Bille August. Written by Rafael Yglesias. Produced by Sarah Radclyffe and James Gorman. A Columbia release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for violence, and for some sexual content. Running time: 130 min
Tags: Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman and Claire Danes. Directed by Bille August. Written by Rafael Yglesias. Produced by Sarah Radclyffe and James Gorman. A Columbia release. Drama, paris, fascinating, emotional, revolutionary
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