A dead horse

Les Miserables offers glowering and preening, simpering and pining

Victor Hugo's 1862 novel Les Miserables, which he began in 1845, runs in most editions to around 1,500 pages. The latest film version--there have been five other adaptations for movies or television--runs a bit under two and a half hours. It's an expert piece of pruning--entire continents of plot and subplot have been separated from the mainland. But do we really need another version of this material, especially after the long-running blockbuster musical? Is this warhorse worth yet another gallop?

Box-office-wise, the current film's main reason for being appears to be as a showcase for its stars, especially Liam Neeson and Claire Danes. It's a chance for everybody to dress up in rags and finery from early-19th-century France and glower and preen beneath poetically stormy skies.

Bille August, who directed from a script by Rafael Yglesias, focuses squarely on Jean Valjean (Neeson), a petty thief who becomes the prosperous mayor of a small village but can't escape his past, and Inspector Javert (Geoffrey Rush), who uncovers that past and hounds him for 20 years. Today's audiences will, of course, recognize in all this the granddaddy of The Fugitive. For all its elaborate period recreation and its insistence on the powers of fate and redemption, the film is basically a fully loaded cliffhanger. It's the safest approach to the material, if not the most psychologically incisive. It turns the wracked relationship between the pursued and the pursuer into a plain old obsessive-compulsive disorder. Javert is forever dogging his quarry, but what it really looks like to us is that he needs to get a life. At least Valjean, eluding Javert for 20 years, manages to rack up some bonuses along the way--like his beloved Cosette (played as a teenager by Danes), the girl he adopts and cares for and with whom he escapes to Paris just in time to rev up for the latest Revolution.

Uma Thurman plays Cosette's mother Fantine, who, before expiring, became a prostitute to support her child. Fantine lends an added glow to Valjean; their scenes together are right out of a lower-depths Camille. Her hair damp and her brow fevered, Thurman looks more alluring famished than most actresses do fully fed. Valjean is a stand-up guy around Fantine--he doesn't even take her up on her offer to cop a freebie. This is how we know Valjean is sainted. He is the ideal of Christian redemption in a corrupt world.

Despite the acclaim he received for playing that other embattled saint Oskar Schindler, Neeson is never quite at his best sporting a nimbus. In Les Miserables, his most effective moments are early on, when Valjean's redemption isn't yet form-fitting--when we can still see in him the shackled animal beneath the makeover of respectability. He can't shake the weight of his secret past; even before Javert comes onto the scene, he's afraid of being found out. Despite his good works, he buys into the mind-set of the era--once a bad guy, always a bad guy.

In trying not to be over-the-top, Geoffrey Rush is a bit too under-the-top. Because the material is basically being played as melodrama, it's a bit boring to gaze upon Javert's blank mug for more than two hours. It's terrible to say, but Rush would have been better off with a moustache to twirl.

Danes is lovely as Cosette even though she spends most of the movie simpering and pining. She's one of the few actresses of her generation capable of fitting without a hitch into period pictures. Danes doesn't bring the present into the past when she plays in period; she seems to reimagine herself from the inside out. She even rescues Les Miserables from its most torrid excesses--the scenes between Cosette and her firebrand lover Marius (Hans Matheson), who at one point actually utters the line, "To the barricades!"

Les Miserables is sumptuous without being stirring. Despite the immense care and intelligence that went into its production, we never feel like we're living alongside its people. We're just watching a well-turned-out movie.

Les Miserables.
Directed by Bille August. Written by Rafael Yglesias. Starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Claire Danes, and Hans Matheson. Opens Friday.

 
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