Les Miserables

(Bille August, USA, 1998)


A curious audience is guaranteed for this non-musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. But be warned – despite the obligatory lush production values and solemn performances, it is a lifeless historical pageant.

For some obscure reason, middlebrow cultural taste is drawn to tales that pit an evil, obsessed man (lightened by just a dash of tragic pathos) against his talented, righteous nemesis.

There is a faint echo of the Amadeus (1984) formula in this telling of the story of shining ex-criminal Valjean (Liam Neeson) hounded by the tyrannical, twisted law officer Javert (Geoffrey Rush).

Talented screenwriter Rafael Yglesias (Fearless, 1993) has simplified Hugo's epic narrative considerably, but the result is neither pleasingly streamlined nor bustlingly chaotic.

Just when Valjean's relationship with the poor, unfortunate Fantine (Uma Thurman) starts to become interesting, she shuffles off the mortal coil – giving way to a far less emotionally captivating tie between the harassed hero and Fantine's daughter, Cosette (Claire Danes).

Director Bille August (The House of the Spirits, 1993) brings a deadeningly impersonal touch to proceedings.

Of the actors, only Neeson and Thurman are served well by this material, while Rush struggles to make an impression with a monotonal, stone-faced characterisation.

© Adrian Martin September 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search