Cast lifts latest Hugo adaptation above its aborted epic posturing
The latest film version of Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" is a lush, epic affair. Handsome and broad, with luminous performances from a pedigree cast, it's a bit surprising Columbia Pictures didn't hold on to it until a more Oscar-friendly time of year.
This umpteenth adaptation of the 19th Century novel (there have been at least 10 other films, and of course, the Broadway musical) stars Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean, the reformed thief whose attempts to live an honorable life are thwarted for decades by the mad pursuit of obsessive police inspector Javert (Geoffrey Rush, "Shine").
If this film opened in November, these two actors would be certain Academy Award nominees for their absorbing, unguarded performances. They engage the audience's emotions from the very first scene.
"Les Mis" opens with the recently paroled Valjean being arrested for stealing valuable silverware from a clergyman who had taken in the homeless thief on a cold night.
Having spent the last 19 years in French prison, essentially for stealing a loaf of bread, Neeson's haggard face reveals Valjean's weary bitterness. He is resigned to living in misery, be it as a free man or back in a labor camp for a parole violation.
But the minister dismisses the police and extracts a promise of an amended and honest life from Valjean, then sends him on his way with the silver still under his arm.
Jump to nine years later and our thief has been reborn under an assumed name as the respected mayor of a country town, where ironically Javert is soon assigned as the prefect of police. Now a sympathetic man of some fortune, Valjean is not immediately recognized by his foe.
The pillar of compassion, he cares for a sickly and recently fired factory worker (Uma Thurman) who has turned to prostitution, and promises on her death bed to look after her small daughter, Cosette.
But as Valjean is fetching the girl from her caretakers, the suspicious Javert discovers he is a fugitive, beginning a obstinate 10-year chase.
Directed by Bille August ("Smilla's Sense of Snow"), "Les Mis" is a impassioned effort but it doesn't quite measure up to the performances within. It is stirring and poignant, but in a Pavlovian way that won't inspire any eye-dabbing.
August provides an authentically thick and sullied period setting, and treats the audience to occasionally grand photography. But he also knows his film depends deeply on empathy and stays focused on the faces of his brilliant cast.
Rush adapts a prune-ish expression for his stubborn officer, beset by a compulsion to serve the law even when it may be unjust. He's a perfect bastard, yet his drive comes from the heart.
The cold, cobalt look of the film augments the grave countenance Neeson gives Valjean, the result of looking over his shoulder his whole life. And in his more contented moments, the cinematography turns lush and sunny.
Most of those happier moments come in the years Valjean spends in Paris with Cosette, now a beautiful teenager played by Claire Danes with her trademark radiance, a strong will and a maturing girlishness.
Valjean has rebuilt his life, but once again he subsists in the long shadow of Javert, who eventually sniffs him out again when Cosette falls in love with a young revolutionary under police surveillance.
As revolution looms, parallels of obsession and honor abound between the French freedom fighters and Valjean's tormented life, and his game of cat-and-mouse with Javert comes to a head.
While the excellent cast will garner notices and perhaps even nominations if Hollywood has a long enough memory, "Les Miserables" is not quite an award-caliber product unto itself. Parts of the film fall short of the grand scope August was striving for, and this adaptation sometimes leaves character's motives unexplored. Why doesn't Valjean tell Cosette who he is before she was 17? I couldn't tell you.
But while it's not quite the sum of it's parts, the impressive components are enough on their own to justify seven bucks and a tub of popcorn.