Les Miserables

Reviewed by Van T. Tran


Columbia, widescreen 2.35:1, 16x9 enhanced, languages: English (DD 5.1), English, Spanish, French (2.0), subtitles: English, French, Spanish, single-layer, scene selections-28 chapters, trailer, rated PG-13, 134 min., $29.95, street date 11/3/98.

Studio Line

Directed by Bille August. Starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, Claire Danes.

Les MisÚrables is an epic tale of love, honor and obsession played out against the dramatic backdrop of early 19th century France. It tells the story of Jean Valjean, whose theft of a loaf of bread condemns him to an unjust prison sentence and a life on the run. An act of forgiveness, however, changes the course of his life forever. He becomes the respected mayor of the poor town of Vigau and transforms it into a thriving community. He also falls in love with one of Vigau's most pitiful, poverty-stricken residents, the beautiful Fantine, and devotes himself to her care. Fantine's untimely death signals a new chapter in Valjean's life, during which he raises her daughter Cosette, whom he desperately attempts to shield from the dangers of the world. As she matures, she falls passionately in love with Marius, a charismatic young Parisian revolutionary. All the while, Valjean is hunted by Javert, a policeman whose lifelong search for Valjean has turned into an obsession.

In Rafael Yglesias' adaptation for Mandalay Entertainment, the film culminates in a final, fated confrontation between Valjean and Javert on the banks of the Seine at the explosive height of the July Revolution in 1832.

Picture/Sound/Extras (A/B-/D-)

The most engaging aspects of the film are the scenes focusing on the confrontation between the protaganist Valjean and the antagonist Javert. The opposing characters are played with conviction by Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush. Especially interesting is to see Rush portraying a vindictive character that is a complete opposite from his Oscar winning role as the bumbling and loveable Helfgott in Shine. Otherwise, the rest of the story fails to stir up the emotion and passion that is evoked in Victor Hugo's novel or the Broadway musical. The daunting task of reducing a 1000 page novel for the screen will inevitably result in sacrificing the intricacies of characters development and the political setting. That is the case in this adaptation as much of the supporting characters are underdeveloped and the political atmosphere is less integral. Furthermore, the ending felt rushed and anti-climatic. Not the kind of reward I'd expected after sitting for nearly two and a half hours.

The DVD picture is matted at 2.35:1 and exhibits excellent composition. Besides some minor shimmering, the picture contains no other artifacts. The color scheme consists of muted palettes from the surrounding grey structures to the formal black attires. The atmosphere reinforces the gloominess with constant overcast skies and drab lighting. Colors are well saturated and look great on the red and blue uniform of the guards. The interiors are low-lit by candles that reveal appropriate shadow details and deep blacks.

My interest in this film grew after listening to Basil Poledouris' dramatic score on the CD soundtrack a few months back. There are a handful of composers that would automatically garner my interest in the movie and Poledouris is one of them. In a last minute decision, Poledouris was called in to compose a new score to replace the one already finished by Gabriel Yared (The English Patient). That decision worked out commendably as Poledouris' score is powerfully driven and flooded with emotions in an otherwise straightforward adaptation. On the DVD, the score is the dominant source of the sounding environment. Yet, I feel that the Dolby Digital recording sounds restrained comparing to the CD recording which has a richer fidelity. Other sound effects are limited in spatiality with an occassional discrete effects from the rear channels. Only toward the revolution stage in the end does the sound mix becomes more aggressive. Dialogue is too focused on the center channel and sounds ADR-produced.

Fans of the Broadway musical might find this movie adaptation to be less than inspiring as a lot of the sentimental subplots in the play are missing. But then again, if you just can't get enough of Les Misérables or don't necessarily want to read the entire novel, the performances and the script are engaging enough to merit a night rental.

Related Sites

Current as of 11/6/98

  • Official Site--Visit the Sony Picture site for multimedia, behind the scenes, and learn about the cast.
  • James Berardinelli's ReelViews--"Kudos to all involved for a finely-crafted period drama that delivers over two hours of solid, literate entertainment."
  • Salon Magazine--"At 2 hours and 20 minutes Les Miserables is an unholy slog."
  • Celebsite: Liam Neeson--See him in the upcoming prequel of Star Wars.
  • Celebsite: Geoffrey Rush--Full bio, articles, news coverages, and more.
  • Celebsite: Claire Danes--This one will help you sort out all the web sites dedicated to this beautiful actress.
  • Celebsite: Uma Thurman--"Interviewers of Uma Thurman seldom fail to compare her to screen legends like Dietrich, Garbo, and Bacall."
  • Les Misérables--The official site of the most successful Broadway musical of all time.
  • Victor Hugo in Memorandum--Learn more about this great French writer and available to read online is the entire novel of Les Misérables.
  • Filmtracks--A review of the score composed by Basil Poledouris.
  • Amazon.com--Purchase the score soundtrack of the film.

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