Sunday, February 17, 2013

Les Miserables (1998)

Director: Bille August                                     Writer: Rafael Yglesias
Film Score: Basil Poledouris                           Cinematography: Jörgen Persson
Starring: Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman and Claire Danes

I’m sorry, but Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe singing? Who would pay good money to see that? Certainly not me. They ought to change the title just to avoid charges of false advertising: More Miserable. If you really want to see the definitive version of Les Miserables, it’s the 1998 version with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush. I’m something of a Les Mis aficionado, but my tastes simply do not run to modern musicals. For example, I’m also a huge fan of Phantom of the Opera, but the Andrew Lloyd Webber travesty is not something I’m interested in watching either. I get that it was a huge Broadway hit, but history shows that few, if any, have translated well to the screen and this is no exception.

The three classic versions of Victor Hugo’s novel begin with the French version from 1934, which is a brilliant piece of filmmaking. It is a lengthy production that is available from the Criterion Collection. Admirable for its attempt to convey as much of Hugo’s novel as possible, it also contains a solid film score by composer Arthur Honegger. The real classic, for Americans at least, is the 1935 version starring Frederick March. I remember catching the beginning of this on PBS as a teenage, and being transfixed for the next two hours as the story unfolded. The lesser version, though still not without charm, is the Michael Rennie version from 1952. The two American versions are collected in a wonderful box set from 20th Century Fox. The odd film out is the 1978 British TV version starring Anthony Perkins and Richard Jordan, which suffers from a low budget and the time period. The DVD version has also been edited down by thirty minutes. The only full version available is the VHS.

What the 1998 version brings to the table that is immediately noticeable is an international cast and crew. The production design by the Swedish Anna Asp is the best of any version yet, capturing the time period in a flawless way. The script, by American Rafael Yglesias, is not entirely without humor and the film benefits tremendously from it. The direction by Dane Bille August is fluid and makes some daring choices that he pulls off with aplomb. Of course, the major reason for the film’s success lies with the stellar cast, headed by Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush as Jean Valjean and Javert. The two of them are supremely believable and Rush, in particular, has none of the overdone characterization that hindered Charles Laughton’s portrayal in 1935. Neeson is the perfect foil and has both the physical size and intensity of character that were missing from March and Rennie’s performances. The other noteworthy performance is that of Uma Thurman, who showed her true versatility and abilities.

It’s unclear why the film was completely ignored at awards time, not receiving a single nomination by the Academy that year. True, it was up against similar historical dramas, Elizabeth and the eventual Oscar winner Shakespeare in Love, but still doesn’t account for the lack of recognition of any kind. The film condenses parts of the novel, but the same is true with every version. There is an energy and a vibrancy to this film that makes it a true masterpiece, bringing to life Victor Hugo’s novel in a way that feels true not only to the author’s work, but real in terms of accurately recreating the time period. So, after the painful singing and dancing of the new film is over, put in the 1998 version of Les Miserables and see the story the way it was meant to be seen.

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