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Film Review - Les Miserables
Dorothy, this ain't a musical anymore. This production of Les Miserables is the grim portrayal of Victor Hugo's book. We are in France around the end of the 18th century, about the time of the revolution. Justice is harsh. Convict Jean Valjean is paroled from prison. On the way to his parole officer, he is caught stealing, but shown great compassion and mercy by the person from whom he stole. This is the moment that changes his life forever. Valjean becomes a compassionate man who is successful in business.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and later in life Valjean, by accident, causes the impoverishment and death of a woman. He vows to take care of the woman's daughter. In doing so, he puts himself at risk of being exposed. Valjean never reported to his parole officer and has been on the run all this time. A police inspector begins a quest to hunt Valjean down.
Les Miserables holds many of the great themes of literature. There's sacrifice and redemption, forgiveness, wit triumphing over brawn, and reconciliation. Hugo's story is long. It isn't pretty. Hugo talks about the injustice of the French legal system of the era. Valjean's first offense was to steal a loaf of bread, for which he was given 20 years' hard labor.
Liam Neeson portrays Valjean with complete believability. He isn't trying to hide behind some phony French accent. He does present the look of a man who has had a hard life, and is trying to do the right thing. Just looking at his face, you can see Valjean's thoughts. Geoffrey Rush is equally adept as Inspector Javert, a man unable to bend from his strict enforcement of the law. Javert was born to the low lives of France, and had to struggle out of that community. Always, there is the fear of falling back.
This film is a much better production than the Broadway musical that toured in the early 1990s. The musical got bogged down in its songs, which just muddied the waters and kept the subtle messages of the book from coming out. Although not a happy film and thus not a box office winner, I dare say this film will outlast the musical.
Directed by Bille August
Released in 1998
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Reviewed by Mongo