Les Misérables (1998)
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
There is no novel as gripping as Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, the story of redemption, overzealous fundamentalism (justice at all costs) and selfless heroism. This is why it has been translated into numerous languages and portrayed on Broadway, television, in film a dozen times over. Jean Valjean has been brought to the screen by many actors, but never with quite the charisma and on-screen passion of Oscar-nominated Liam Neeson. With a stunning cast, a gorgeous soundtrack and a premise to touch even the most hardened heart, this most recent adaptation is a triumph.
Jean Valjean (Liam Neeson) has spent nineteen years at hard labor in a French prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Once reaching the end of his sentence, he is given a yellow passport (marking him as a former convict) and told to report to his parole officer. Wandering the lonely roads of France seeking redemption for his corrupted life, Valjean meets the man who forever alters his fate. After being turned away by all the local inns in the parish, he finds warmth and food at the church, by the invitation of its Bishop (Peter Vaughan). Valjean repays him by stealing his silver, but he is caught. Instead of judgment, he receives mercy... and a new lease on life.
Ten years later, Inspector Javert (Geoffrey Rush) is assigned to a new post in Vigau. The small town prospers under the management of a good-hearted and kind mayor, whom Javert believes is too lenient. Javert is convinced he has seen the man before... perhaps in prison. This stranger resembles a convict who broke his parole. In the meantime, the mayor's overseer discovers one of the women in their employment (Uma Thurman) is an unmarried mother. Out of fear that Fantine may corrupt those around her, the penniless woman is discharged. Left without any other means, Fantine turns in to prostitution to survive. The mayor takes pity on her and not only removes the sentence, but gives her into the hands of the church so she might be nursed back to health.
These lives and more (including Claire Danes as Cossette) will entwine in ways no one expects, and leaves Valjean to make a choice between freedom and escape. What unfolds is a touching story of renewed faith and moral strength in a time of revolution and cruelty. The transformed and godly Valjean is offset well by the passionate, cruel Javert. They are two men of conviction, but one allows for human failings; the other makes no exceptions. This dramatic, powerful clash of personalities and priorities provides the backdrop for side-plots, such as Cosette's growth into maturity and her love for a Revolutionist, Maraus.
When a friend told me this was her favorite film of all time, I raised my eyebrows. A movie that mentions prostitution and criminals on the back cover didn't sound promising. How little I knew the value of this film! The life-altering story teaches compassion, faith, honesty, integrity, and self-sacrifice. Its entire premise is built around the idea that a man can be redeemed through faith. Lovers of the original book will find it much altered (in many ways, I prefer this adaptation to the novel) but it still captures the heart and morality of Hugo's work. Les Misérables has romance, action, suspense, and unforgettable performances. It isn't especially pretty to look at, but that doesn't matter... it's the storyline we care about.
Rush and Neeson create a truly astounding chemistry -- they're both brilliant actors and play off one another superbly. Their verbal duels often spark with repressed wrath. A dramatic score ads the depth of character development while humor is carefully woven into a serious and captivating plot. Les Misérables is a wonderful film, and if you look past the obvious you'll discover a story capable of changing your life. This is a a tale of compassion, honesty, transformation, morality, and forgiveness that might not adhere exactly to Victor Hugo's book, but still leaves one with a sense of betterment. And it's not often one can say that about a film.
Our Rating: 4 out of 5
Fantine wears revealing clothing; men put snow down her dress and speak to her in vulgar terms. She throws off her coverlet, revealing her bare legs and stomach (nudity is avoided), as she offers to repay her landlord.
A few mild profanities and abuses of deity; prostitutes are referred to as "whores."
Men and women are shot down, executed, and fired at. A child is killed in a crossfire. A man threatens a woman with a gun. A man's head is bashed against a wall several times, with bloody results. A character commits suicide by allowing himself to drown. Men slap a prostitute to the ground.