Les Misérables, and I recalled it as being a somewhat heinous bastardisation of the book that was nonetheless a pretty solid piece of prestigious costume-drama filmmaking. Upon revisiting it, I'd be inclined to almost perfectly reverse that: while it does some pretty dodgy things to Victor Hugo's novel, it's certainly no worse than the previous English-language features from 1935 and 1952, and in many important ways, it's considerably better than either of them. On the other hand, as prestigious costume dramas go, it definitely errs on the side of overly fussy, respectable, and oxygen-starved: the film's images are so aggressively one-note as to make Tom "Close-Ups" Hooper look like a madcap visual revolutionary, and the cast almost uniformly falls into the trap of studied aloofness. The one major exception to the latter issue is an important one, sure, and enough to keep this adaptation afloat. But there's a lot of earnest, stuffy primness happening here, and if the film is, on balance, worth watching (as the '52 adaptation, for one, is not), that has a lot more to do with the richness of the material and the lushness of the Czech location shooting, not with the energy and emotional rigor of the filmmaking itself. You hire Bille August to direct, you get Bille August, would be the moral of this particular story.
Apologies to the Bille August fans out there, for I am certain you must exist. But he was part of a certain tradition of handsome, European museum pieces for middlebrow art house audiences in those days when art house audiences could still be middlebrow, and the Les Misérables he oversaw fits in very neatly with that tradition, just as it slots into the run of literary adaptation in the 1990s that cropped up everywhere in response to Merchant Ivory's big hits at the start of the decade (much as the 1935 film was also part of a wave of prestigious literary films that were, on balance, better made and more interesting than their '90s counterparts). There is, assuredly, nothing wrong with this Les Misérables. It's just a bit airless, is all, made all the worse by Basil Poledouris's screamingly weepy music and August's reliance on painterly medium shots captured by his regular cinematographer, Jörgen Persson, in a uniformly glum palette of greyish-blues that might go some way to evoke "misery" in the way that chiaroscuro lighting effects did for the '35 film, if there was enough variation to make it feel like a choice that was being made, and not simply a lazy default.
Still and all, the film has its good points, among them being that unlike any other English language Les Misérables, up to and including the 2012 musical, the 1998 film doesn't bother warming up with introductory material invented by the writer (Rafael Yglesias in this case, whose next script would be a far more dire example of reinventing and breaking a great work of literature, the awful 2001 From Hell), but simply deposits us right where the actual narrative of the book begins, with a scruffy, angry fellow named Jean Valjean (Liam Neeson) asking for a night's shelter at the home of an unusually kindly bishop (Peter Vaughan). And no, I am not proclaiming that simple fidelity to Hugo makes for an inherently better movie, though the increase in momentum it lends to this version of the story, which thus begins on action and requires one less pause to jump forward several years, certainly works out to the benefit of this film, which has a pretty fantastic opening act, at any rate.
The details continue as they continue: ex-con Valjean is set on the path of righteousness by the bishop, turning into a much beloved industrialist and mayor of a small town, where he crosses paths with Inspector Javert (Geoffrey Rush), who knew Valjean as a prisoner and whose unyielding law and order attitude would seem to spell doom for the parole breaker, if he is discovered. Along comes desperate single mother and newly-minted prostitute Fantine (Uma Thurman) to put the relationship between the two men on edge, while also giving Valjean a chance to prove his goodness; around the midway point - yet again, we have a Les Misérables film that spends most of its time on just the first of five volumes - Valjean is outed and has to keep ahead of Javert while protecting the now-dead Fantine's daughter Cosette a she grows into womanhood, in the form of Claire Danes. By this point, it's Paris, 1823, and Cosette falls in love with Marius Pontmercy (Hans Matheson), the leader of a group of student revolutionaries - called here as in no other English language films the Friends of the ABCs, which would be a lovely detail if the pun on abaisees made any damn sense in English - who is himself being actively hunted by Javert, which throws the cop and Valjean back into each other's lives.
One major point in the '98 film's favor: though, like every preceding version, it gives short shrift to the barricades and the failed student revolution (now that we're at the end of our English language Les Misérables marathon, I will confess: the reason the 2012 film has my favorite script of all of them has a great deal to do with how incomparably more attention it pays to the June Rebellion, which I think to be the most important part of the book), it at least manages to express in some detail the political element underlying that revolution. Aye, it's still functionally nothing more than an annoying obstacle in the Cosette/Marius love affair, but at least we have some sense of the world surrounding the lovers, as opposed to the scrupulous avoidance of any politics whatsoever found in the '35 and '52 films, and even to a certain degree the 1978 miniseries.
Once again, though, it commits the cardinal sin of conflating the Valjean/Javert conflict with the actual drama of the story itself, which is meant to be the spiritual restoration of Valjean himself, and thus it ends with Javert's suicide; making things worse, that sequence is far more afield of the original source material than ever before, both because of the irritating fake-out it tries to play on us, and because instead of being a sobering, stunning moment, it's turned into a moment of triumph, what with Valjean running down the riverfront with a smile on his face. It is, easily, the most inappropriate ending of any Les Misérables film, and it casts a retroactive pall on the whole thing.
If we step back and just consider this as its own narrative, I suppose it's not as bad; though given how much emphasis this version puts on Valjean's spiritual journey (largely through Neeson's performance, about which I'll say more presently), the fact that the end reduces that journey to a simple chase dynamic is upsetting. Certainly, on its own terms, this is a fairly complex and coherent narrative that does not ever suffer from the tendency of all condensations of massive novels to seem unduly rushed. The pacing works, especially for the first hour, given that the audience in '98, unlike the audience in' 35, would be inclined to desire more momentum and a constant elevation of stakes, with less time spent simply living with the characters. Indeed, in terms of taking the most conflict-ready moments of the book's central plot and stitching them together, this Les Misérables can hardly be faulted.
Where it falters, then, is less its story, nor even the way that story is treated (August largely stays out of the way of the script), than in the stuffiness of it all: the camera that embalms rather than enlivens the material - especially with that grim color scheme - and the acting, which is not, in general, very good. All of the performances have had their boosters, of course, particularly Rush, though I will confess that Neeson is the only one here that I have very much particular use for. It's hard to square his Valjean with the one in the book; befitting the actor playing him, this Valjean is a very mean, aggressive man, one capable of slapping Cosette, even if it is presented as out of character (in contrast, try to imagine, even in a parody, Fredric March or Hugh Jackman's iterations of the character doing anything vaguely violent to her - a complete impossibility). But even if it is not a very classic Jean Valjean, Neeson's is nevertheless an outstanding, memorable Jean Valjean who does a mighty job of anchoring this film and keeping its drama earthy and humane.
He gets nothing from his castmates, though Rush has a few good moments; he effectively inhabits the character, though he does not do much of anything to bring a life that isn't present on the page, and is much the least memorable of the five English-speaking Javerts (though Russell Crowe is surely not memorable for the right reasons), largely because he simply takes "driven to uphold the law" at face value, and does not mire it in pathology, neurosis, or religious desperation. Thurman's Fantine is fine only in her first scene, but the actress never finds the right physical register for the character - her scenes as a prostitute are almost hilariously bad, and not in any of the ways that might fit the moment of the story - and she is the victim of a terribly over-conceived death scene. Danes and Matheson, as the young lovers, are simply horrid: I have never at any point had much affection, or even tolerance, for anything Danes does, and her Cosette takes an inherently limiting character and brings her to a new low, with a spiteful, bratty, one-dimensional shrew, a tepid iteration of 20th Century teen anger welded uncertainly and ineffectively to a 19th Century virgin. Matheson, the only headliner in the cast that you've probably never heard of, doesn't ever convince as a fiery radical student, and only manages to handle the job of playing a melodramatic love interest because the mode of such characters in the time that Hugo was writing tended towards the milky and fawning and generally uninteresting.
The good news is that the thing is certainly lavish and detailed - production designer Anna Asp and art director Peter Grant's vision of early 19th Century France is wonderfully persuasive- and at 134 minutes, the film is just long enough to touch the sweep and scope of the novel, suggesting not just the individual lives of men but the movements of history as well. It is a frustrating movie in a lot of ways, but it is certainly rousing and involving, and Neeson's performance is one of the best in his career, which to some of us is saying quite a hell of a lot. The fact that it has evaporated in the public memory in just 15 years says a lot more about the prestige fatigue that hit at the end of the '90s than anything the film does wrong; flaws and all, it's a satisfying costume drama, not hardly the best of its breed, but decent enough, and while it does not do anything to elucidate its source material, the least we can say is that it does not it any undue disrespect.