Box officewise, Les Miserables' main reason for being appears to be as a showcase for it stars, especially Liam Neeson and Claire Danes. It's a chance for everybody to dress up in rags and finery from early-nineteenth-century France, and then glower and preen beneath poetically stormy skies.
Bille August, who directed from a script by Rafael Yglesias, concentrates on the relationship between Jean Valjean (Neeson), a petty thief who becomes the prosperous mayor of a small village but can't escape his past, and Inspector Javert (Geoffrey Rush), who uncovers that past and hounds him for twenty years. Today's audiences will, of course, recognize in all this the granddaddy of The Fugitive. For all its elaborate period re-creation and its insistence on the powers of fate and redemption, the film is basically a fully-loaded cliffhanger. It's the safest approach to the material, if not the most psychologically incisive. It turns the wracked relationship between the pursued and the pursuer into a plain old obsessive-compulsive disorder. Javert is forever dogging his quarry, but what it really looks like to us is that he needs to get a life. At least Valjean, eluding Javert for all those years, manages to rack up some bonuses along the way -- principally his beloved Cosette (played as a teenager by Danes), the girl he adopts and cares for and with whom he escapes to Paris just in time to rev up for the latest Revolution.
Uma Thurman plays Cosette's mother Fantine, who, before expiring, became a prostitute to support her child. Fantine lends an added glow to Valjean; their scenes together are right out of a lower-depths Camille. Her hair damp and her brow fevered, Thurman looks more alluring famished than most actresses do fully fed. Valjean is a standup guy when he's around Fantine -- he doesn't even take her up on her offer to cop a freebie. This is how we know Valjean is sainted. He is the ideal of Christian redemption in a corrupt world. Even when he has an opportunity to knock off Javert he decides against it -- in the name of God.
Despite the acclaim he received for playing that other embattled saint, Oskar Schindler, Neeson is never quite at his best sporting a nimbus. In Les Miserables his most effective moments occur early on, when Valjean's redemption isn't yet formfitting -- when we can still see in him the shackled animal beneath the makeover of respectability. He can't shake the weight of his secret past; even before Javert comes onto the scene, he's afraid of being found out. Despite his good works, he buys into the mindset of the era -- once a bad guy, always a bad guy. Or as Javert states, "A wolf can wear sheep's clothing, but he's still a wolf."
In trying not to be over-the-top, Rush is a bit too under-the-top. Since the material is basically being played as melodrama -- albeit high-toned melodrama -- it's a bit boring to gaze upon Javert's blank mug for more than two hours. It's a terrible thing to say, but, really, Rush would have been better off with a mustache to twirl. He made his movie reputation as the flibbertigibbet-y David Helfgott in Shine -- the man of a thousand faces. His Javert is at the opposite extreme -- the man of one expression.
Danes is lovely as Cosette, even though she spends most of the movie simpering and pining. She's one of the few actresses of her generation capable of fitting without a hitch into period pictures (1994's Little Women being the best example). She doesn't take the present into the past when she plays such roles; she seems to reimagine herself from the inside out, so that whatever she does seems entirely and unjarringly in character. She even rescues Les Miserables from its most torrid excesses -- the scenes between Cosette and her firebrand lover Marius (Hans Matheson), who at one point actually utters the line, "To the barricades!" A funny thing happened on the way to the insurrection.
Les Miserables is sumptuous without being stirring. Despite the immense care and intelligence that went into its production, we never feel like we're living right alongside its people. We're just watching a well-turned-out movie. I wish August had attempted something woollier and more subversive. He and Yglesias have devoted their energies to the obsessive push-pull between Valjean and Javert, and yet their film is a smooth ride. It's too sane for its own good.
Directed by Bille August. Screenplay by Rafael Yglesias. Starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Claire Danes, and Hans Matheson.