Jean Valjean, a thieving con,
A man who stole some bread,
Got nineteen years of blood and tears
That left his spirit dead.
When on parole, he wrongly stole,
And when they caught the debtor,
A bishop freed him of the deed
And told him to be better.
This saved his soul; he broke parole,
And started his life o’er.
Out of distress, he found success,
A changed man to the core.
With altered name, he won some fame
And rose to be a mayor,
But then one day, to his dismay,
He once more meets Javert.
This rule-obsessed, persistent pest
Was once his prison guard.
Valjean’s strong face revives the chase,
For mania’s die hard.
Meanwhile, unseen, the poor Fantine
Is found out and dismissed.
She is reviled for a child
Who should not exist.
Arrested soon, she finds a boon
When Valjean helps her plight
And proves compassion’s still in fashion,
Sparking Javert’s spite.
But when a pawn some call Valjean
Will soon receive his blame,
The real Valjean cannot go on
And let him bear his shame.
Before the court, he gives report
Of who he really is.
His doubts fulfilled, Javert is thrilled,
And victory is his.
His words are mean, which kills Fantine,
And Valjean flees Javert.
In Fantine’s debt, he finds Cosette
And takes her in his care.
Cosette and he discreetly flee
To Paris, where they find
A place to live in, and they’re given
Walls to hide behind.
A decade gone, and Jean Valjean
Still loves Cosette, now grown.
Despite the years, he still has fears
And won’t leave her alone.
Yet young romance still has its chance,
And though her father’s wary,
Affections show for France’s foe,
A revolutionary.
They meet each night, out of Jean’s sight,
While Marius prepares
To soon ignite a hopeless fight
So freedom can be theirs.
Again Javert attempts to snare
Valjean, but he is caught.
Amid parades, the barricades
Arise from what they’ve got.
Because Cosette can’t help but fret,
Valjean locates her swain.
With mercy rare, he frees Javert,
Who thinks this act insane.
Amid attack, upon his back
Valjean conveys the boy.
Through sewers dank and dark and rank,
He saves his daughter’s joy.
Valjean is caught; Javert’s distraught
When mercy makes its plea.
The strict Javert just cannot bear
To break his own decree.
He leaves Valjean and can’t go on;
At last Valjean is free.

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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