Screen's 'Les Mis' doesn't sing Review: The movie version fails to equal the book or the musical.

May 01, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Maybe breaking into song would have helped.

This steadfastly inert film production of "Les Miserables" manages to take one of the great works of 19th-century literature, a novel of individuals struggling for survival as French history unfolds around them, and turn it into a story so generic, it may as well have been set in Milwaukee -- or on Broadway, where the musical version is threatening to run forever.

Making the film doubly shameful is that it wastes the talent of a spectacular cast, especially Liam Neeson as the hulking, haunted Jean Valjean and Uma Thurman as the doomed Fantine.

Set in the years after the French Revolution, when each day threatened to produce the spark that would once again set France afire, "Les Miserables" is the tale of Valjean, a former convict -- jailed for stealing bread -- whose life is turned around by a single act of kindness.

Unfortunately, French society does not believe much in the ability of criminals to reform. So Valjean adopts a new identity and becomes mayor of Vigau, a dying town he rejuvenates through his enlightened, democratic methods.

Things proceed swimmingly until two things happen: First, a distracted Valjean allows one of his workers to be fired -- Fantine, an unwed mother who sends nearly every franc she earns to the couple caring for her child, Cosette. By the time he realizes his mistake, Fantine has turned to a life of prostitution and fallen gravely ill. Valjean cares for her and promises to love Cosette as his own.

Second, a new inspector joins the Vigau police force -- Javert (Geoffrey Rush, his face locked in a perpetual scowl), a former prison guard who believes all criminals, even allegedly reformed ones, are best kept behind bars, if not six feet under the ground. He soon recognizes Valjean and sets about to destroy him.

Thus begins a years-long game of cat-and-mouse, with Valjean staying barely one step ahead of the fanatical Javert. When the now-grown Cosette (Claire Danes, a little too mannered to pull this off) locks eyes with Marius (Hans Matheson), a revolutionary determined to bring down the monarchy, their love sets up Valjean and Javert's final confrontation.

If all this sounds like an exciting plot, it is, particularly when set against the background of 19th-century France. But screenwriter Rafael Yglesias ("Death and the Maiden") has pretty much forgotten the French part. Valjean is simply saintly, Javert sadistic, Fantine devoted and Cosette spirited. Marius, so important to the book as a symbol of French turmoil, comes across merely as a rowdy teen. Perhaps no other actor has the physical bearing to capture the role of Valjean as well as Neeson. But like the film itself, his Valjean never rises above the underwritten script.

Yglesias, who faced the daunting task of distilling Victor Hugo's massive epic into a 129-minute film, has simply distilled too much. What he's given us is a decent story, but not "Les Miserables."

Director Bille August ("Pelle the Conqueror," "The House of the Spirits"') subverts the film even more by shooting it almost totally in the dark. Yes, much of the action takes place at night, but what's the sense in casting some of the world's finest actors if one can rarely see their faces?

Great book, great cast, average film: "Les Miserables" is all pedigree, no passion.

'Les Miserables'

Directed by Bille August

Starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman and Claire Danes

Released by Columbia

Rated PG-13 (adult themes, mild violence)

Sun score: *** 1/2

Pub Date: 5/01/98

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