Sunday, July 28, 2013

Summer Reading 2: Les Misérables (1998)

Or Liam Neeson Hasn't Been a Proper Father Yet Till At Least 20 People Die

Well, it's been a while since the last of these reviews. Like real-life summer reading, sometimes you have other things you would like to devote your time to more. In this case, it was giant robots. And like all summer reading assignments, we eventually get back to work.

Which brings us to entry #2 - the 1998 adaptation starring Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush.  From this point on, I will say there is one recurring theme with a lot of the adaptations of this book- events are left out. Given the sheer amount of content in the original source material, and the fact that the closest to a straight adaptation clocked in at 5 hours of runtime, most other versions choose to pick one or a couple of particular plots and themes to emphasize out of the full tome rather than have to speedread.

This adaptation is a BIG example of that practice - in that this film is almost purely dedicated to the conflict between Valjean and Javert (played by the above two actors respectively.)  The result is...something of a mix.  Where the focus is concerned, it's actually a pretty solid job.  Unfortunately, whenever there's an event that's not concerned with their conflict, the adaptation suffers in many ways.

"Don't screw with me, Javert! You KNOW what happens when I play determined fathers in film!"

To the film's credit, that focus doesn't actually come up as an issue right away.  The first chunk of the film is fairly faithful to the source material - and on top of that, fairly well done.  In fact, the entire section up through Fantine's death and Cosette's adoption is surprisingly spot on, if a bit streamlined in the interests of time.  Even with the streamlining, the film still hits on all the appropriate plot points, and does them suitable justice.  It's when the story moves into the second half, when the narrative is supposed to expand to cover Cosette and Marius (whose role is almost completely rewritten) that the film begins to suffer. It even moves away from the text in some rather jarring ways, the most damning an added in moment where Valjean outright slaps Cosette.  There's a number of changes in this film that I can somewhat accept (things like the fact the Thénardiers are almost completely absent from the movie, while a bit odd, I can see why with the film's focus) but that one feels like a particularly out of character moment that makes the entire point of focusing on that plotline seem to hurt as a result.  Alongside the Thénardiers, many other characters are soundly given the axe by the script, even those that could still fit into the overall narrative - such as Marius's friends and fellow revolutionaries, who are largely omitted and his role inflated into being a ringleader in the cause. It's something of a shame that the script falls apart like this in the second half, because the movie otherwise is a fairly well done production.  Billie August's direction does a good job with capturing the dirty streets of France of the era, and most notably, sells the failed revolution well.  Though the script still skimps on this section, the direction really gives everything a sense of impending doom as well as the sense of chaos when it all finally does come apart.  About the one area where the direction does lose its edge, and this is partially also on the script, is the film's finale.  In a bit of an odd choice, August and screenwriter Rafael Yglesias choose to end the film with Javert's releasing Valjean and then committing suicide.  While this does wrap up their primary focal point, as well as leave the loose ends fairly seen to, it feels ultimately anticlimactic as a choice to end the movie on, and is done in such a way that it feels like it loses the impact the scene is supposed to have.  Valjean simply walks away and Javert's suicide feels less like an inability to reconcile his world view with the events and more a matter of fact "I think I'm done here" style of death.

Surprisingly...this isn't that much different from his reaction at the very end.  I suspect, on the inside, he's thinking "...what the Hell was that?"

One of the areas where this film comes through the strongest is in, as you can guess from the two leads, the casting.  Neeson's stint as Valjean is, with the exception of an added violent streak (albeit one that makes sense in the first part of the book) an otherwise spot-on take on the character.  Likewise, while he sometimes overemphasizes the stronger elements of his personality, Rush is otherwise a solid fit in Javert's role, maintaining the cold policeman's demeanor.  Of the other two standouts, one is to be expected, while the other is more of a very pleasant surprise; The first of these being Uma Thurman as Fantine.  Though the film somewhat speeds through her decline, Thurman does justice to the scenes she does have in the role.  For not getting a lot of direct involvment, she genuinely still manages to get a lot of sadness from her time in the film.  The other, and the surprising one, being Peter Vaughan as the Bishop of Digne. For having an even further condensed part in this version, Vaughan still manages to imbue the warmth necessary for his role as a moral catalyst for Valjean. Claire Danes and Hans Matheson as Cosette and Marius carry their roles well enough for what the script leaves them to work with, but that's all the impact they have.

"Finally!  A version of this story where I'm not just a love-struck idiot!"
(...OK, he's a bit more than this in the original...but really, it DOES make up a large chunk of him.)

In general, this film is something of a mixed bag to me as an adaptation.  Like I said above, when it works well, it actually really knocks it of the park.  Unfortunately, when it misses, it tends to hurt the production as an adaptation.  The result is a film that is a decent production on its own merits, if a little rocky in the second half.  However, as an adaptation those stumbles become a full-fledged trip up and amplify the mistakes further.

I feel kind of bad for this now.  Several weeks late and it's for a somewhat lackluster adaptation.  Well, brace yourselves.  To make up for it, the next entry will be a double-header...both in going well and disappointment.

Fun Fact - This isn't actually a still from the movie.  This was part of Uma Thurman's long and painful recovery from Batman and Robin.  Yeah.  It wasn't pleasant.

In the meantime, keep an eye out.  In the next few days, I've got not one, but two new releases lined up for review.

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