It’s a credit to Victor Hugo’s towering 1862 novel that Les Miserables (Columbia) has been remade so often. The gold standard is still the stirring 1935 version Richard Boleslawski directed for Darryl Zanuck, starring Fredric March as reformed petty thief Jean Valjean and Charles Laughton as Javert, the obsessed police inspector who pursues him relentlessly. But Hollywood adapted the book again in 1952; Richard Jordan and Anthony Perkins played Valjean and Javert in 1978; director Claude Lelouch updated the action to the 20th century in 1995 with Jean-Paul Belmondo. Les Miserables has been interpreted by filmmakers in Japan, Russia, Mexico, India, and Turkey. And the lavish musical has been packing in audiences on Broadway — and around the world — for more than 11 years. Perhaps you’ve seen the T-shirt?
There’s room for this mass of Miserables because Hugo’s epic — so dramatically exciting, so moving in its deep understanding of the power of redemption — is bigger than any visualization can ever be: There’s even room for Danish director Bille August, whose new sobersided production stars Liam Neeson and Shine Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush as pursued and pursuer.
This Mis, with a script by novelist-screenwriter Rafael Yglesias (Fearless), smooths out Hugo’s twining plot to a series of…and thens: And then the convict Valjean, having found grace, becomes the good mayor of a small country town. Cut. And then Javert recognizes Valjean from prison. Cut. And then Valjean cares for the malnourished prostitute Fantine (Uma Thurman). And then Javert pursues him. And then Valjean rescues Fantine’s young daughter, Cosette (who grows up to become Claire Danes). And then Javert pursues…
But it’s not the start-and-stop approach that hampers this production; it’s that August is missing what Hugo would call ”a divine and terrible radiance.” Aside from his Oscar-winning Pelle the Conqueror, the director’s work has always felt too cool and…brown for me, as if fidelity to literature precluded any risk taking. (August melted the icy fascination of Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow to slush and tamped down the wafting mystery of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits.) And in such blandness, an actor is at a disadvantage. Neeson never quite conveys Valjean’s source of goodness. Thurman’s Fantine is a generic consumptive in low-cut rags.
Rush, though, is on to something. ”You don’t understand the importance of the law,” his Javert hisses. But Rush understands beautifully. Driven by resentment and a twisted devotion to rules, his Javert evokes more horrified compassion from us than we feel for a dying prostitute. That may not be what Hugo had in mind, but it’s something new from an old classic. C+