Published May 1, 1998
In Les Misérables, directed by Bille August, it is the film itself which turns out to be misérable: thin and poor and wretched and in need of feeding up. The one thing you don’t want to skimp on when you are filming an epic is the epic proportions. August, a fine director of intense and sensitive Scandanavian psychodramas makes this mistake. Not too surprisingly, when you think about it. His crowds, his armies, his teeming masses of wretched humanity all look way too small and meagre, as if he couldn’t afford enough extras to make them look properly imposing—as he probably couldn’t. As a result, although there is much to like in this film, it doesn’t impress as it ought to do. Even more seriously, it arrives at a point of incoherence at the end—something which, admittedly, it must be hard to avoid in any adaptation of Victor Hugo’s great novel. But August makes a very basic mistake.
This is to make Inspector Javert (Geoffrey Rush), the avenging fury who pursues the hero, Jean Valjean (Liam Neeson), relentlessly and remorselessly for year upon year, into a mere sadistic thug. This is to miss the point about him, which is that he stands for absolute justice and rectitude. If he is not himself the very image of perfect rectitude in all his dealings with his fellow man, then we have lost the essence of him. This is hinted at when Javert thinks he has made a mistake in identifying M. le Maire as the convict Jean Valjean, he insists on informing him that he has denounced him unjustly and that therefore he must be dismissed. “I deserve to be punished,” he says. “You must punish me or my life will have been meaningless.” That is obviously a key line in the film, but it is not explored or explained.
True, the mayor, who really is Jean Valjean, replies: “I order you to forgive yourself. You will remain prefect. These are my orders.” There is the hint of Javert’s resentment at being forced to show mercy, even to himself but not of the awe at something higher than his own rigid standard of justice. The moment is skipped over too rapidly and Javert comes across as nothing more than an obsessive and brutal cop. When he is captured by the revolutionaries and told that he has to “face the people’s justice” it is just a phrase whose irony is unremarked. And in the final scene, his capitulation to the force of Jean Valjean’s goodness simply makes no sense. Instead of coming to us as a wearing down of the highest human good by something even higher—something tinged with the divine—it is a mere non sequitur.
Still, on the positive side, it is a strong cast, particularly in the two main roles of Valjean and Javert and that of Claire Danes as the fragrant young Cosette—though Uma Thurman as Fantine not uncharacteristically overacts. August also captures something of the pace and excitement of the novel and produces a real development of suspense together with a respectful and unironic presentation of Jean Valjean’s goodness. These are by no means small virtues in this day and age, and young people already committed to read the novel—at gunpoint if necessary—may find this a helpful introduction.