Not to be confused with the more recent adaptation of the stage musical, this 1998 version of Les Miserables was the first version I saw, though I also enjoyed the 1978 version with Richard Jordan and Anthony Perkins. It doesn’t have the rousing musical numbers that thousands have come to love, but the drama flows smoothly in its elegant reworking of Victor Hugo’s classic novel.
Liam Neeson is a marvelous Jean Valjean, exhibiting both his early brutishness and his reformed piety with equal skill. Little flashes of his temper toward Cosette realistically reveal remnants of his past ruthlessness, and though his religion is seen only in passing after the bishop’s gift, his whole performance showcases the main moral of the story (at least for me): man’s potential to change his life for the better. Geoffrey Rush is equally excellent as probably the best Javert I’ve seen. Though his final act is a bit puzzling, he is entirely convincing in his narrow-minded devotion to the law. Uma Thurman as Fantine, a young Claire Danes as Cosette, and Hans Matheson as Marius likewise fill their roles admirably. While a few over-explanatory scenes seem a tad stiff toward the beginning, other scenes easily impress with large crowds, recalling the cast-of-thousands epics of yesteryear.
I very much enjoyed the 2012 musical version with Hugh Jackman, and I find it interesting to compare this film with that one. While the well-lyricized songs allow the musical to eloquently gloss over certain scenes, the 1998 Les Miserables gives some added details, such as Valjean’s touching care for Fantine and a less rushed romance between Cosette and Marius. The courtroom scene in which Valjean reveals his identity is particularly good in both versions for different reasons: whereas the song “Who Am I?” superbly evoked his moral struggle with its stunning climax, there’s also something to be said for Neeson’s inner turmoil culminating to a more developed revelation of himself. Also, at least one person I’ve read mentioned that morally Fantine didn’t seem deserving of heaven in the 2012 film, but this version made it clearer that she had indeed repented of her sins.
The 1998 film does leave out many subplots, including Eponine, a larger role for the Thenardiers, and the more tragic conclusion of the book and musical, but these omissions serve to streamline the plot and not let it feel over-stuffed, as the 2012 version did at times. I especially liked the conclusion, which seemed more hopeful and optimistic. (For some reason, I did find the denouement of Valjean walking away with a relieved expression on his face to be strangely reminiscent of the final scene of Marathon Man. Maybe it’s just me.) Some lovers of the musical may find this version lacking, but it’s a stylish period piece that handsomely puts the best of the novel onto the screen.
Best line: (Fantine, to Valjean) “But you don’t understand, I’m a whore… and Cosette has no father.“ (Valjean) “She has the Lord. He is her father. And you’re His creation. In His eyes, you have never been anything but an innocent and…beautiful woman.”Artistry: 9 Characters/Actors: 9 Entertainment: 8 Visual Effects: 7 Originality: 7 Watchability: 7 TOTAL: 47 out of 60
Next: #151 – Cinderella
© 2014 S. G. Liput
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