The UnPopular Opinion: Les Miserables (1998)
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
**** SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
Back in 1998, the idea of a successful big screen musical was but a dream not yet dreamed. Bringing the vastly successful world of Broadway to cinemas would not happen for a few more years and it would be another 14 years before LES MISERABLES would make it to the movies. It was a simpler time when director Bille August (SMILLA'S SENSE OF SNOW) would adapt the biggest English language adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel to date. He did it very successfully and with one big component missing: the music.
My name is Jean Valjean and I have a very particular set of skills, all of which involve stealing bread.
LES MISERABLES was written in the mid-1800s and the original unabridged text ran 1900 pages. The 2012musical version is clocking in at just under three hours and tries to cram in every bit of the epic stage production. But, the 1998 version decided to go the Cliff's Notes route and condense the story to the bare elements. Still clocking in at over two hours, this version of LES MISERABLES is one of my favorite movies.
First up, you have the great cast. As Inspector Javert and Jean Valjean, the central cat and mouse characters, Geoffrey Rush and Liam Neeson are perfect. Rush always has had a quiet malevolence about him which serves him very well in the maniacal role of Javert. This role came in the same year Rush co-starred in ELIZABETH and SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. Three vastly different period roles of which this movie was the lone film he did not receive any awards recognition for. Neeson had spent the last few years starring in SCHINDLER'S LIST, ROB ROY, and MICHAEL COLLINS and was still a year away from THE PHANTOM MENACE. Again, no awards love for Neeson either.
In fact, LES MISERABLES bombed at the box office. Critically it was a lauded, but in the end it grossed less than $20 million. This is a travesty. Many are missing a fantastic movie with an exceptional group of movie stars. Why has everyone stayed away? Probably because what is missing is the music that many fans were either anticipating or avoiding. So, here is likely the best film of a director's career featuring award-caliber acting and no one recognized it whatsoeever.
HOMELAND has ruined Claire Danes face for me.
For those of you who hate musicals, check out this version of LES MISERABLES . It is dramatic without being hokey and avoids everything that the Broadway musical embodies. But, it also kicks the subplots to the curb. Gone are the the Thenardiers and Eponine. If a fan of the musical read that, the would be livid. Half of the songs would not exist without those roles. But, this LES MISERABLES is not about the sweeping combination of multiple storylines. Instead, this movie is focused on Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert and their relationship.
The ending of the musical is surrounded by death of all sorts while this version tries to give a hopeful goodbye to the characters. Maybe that is the problem people had: it is the happiest version of the most depressing novel ever written. I am not one to shy away from depressing stories, but for all the times hope and faith come into play, LES MISERABLES is still a downer. Even the musical cannot escape the trap of the overarching element of sadness the story is centered on. This version does.
Even dying, Uma Thurman is still hot.
The female roles in this film are well played, too. Uma Thurman as Fantine gives an excellent performance which will from this point on by overshadowed by Anne Hathaway. If Uma sang for the role, I am sure we would be looking at the comparison a little differently. Fantine is an incredibly tragic role and Uma delivers it with style. Claire Danes, two years removed from ROMEO + JULIET, plays this role like a French Revolution version of that same role. While I think she is the weakest of the four stars, she still will give Amanda Seyfried a challenge for best Cosette.
The musical score is sweeping and appropriate to the era without sounding archaic. The movie does wallow in the grays and muted colors of the downtrodden era, rarely reaching for anything close to vibrant. In fact, comparing the visual style of this to the upcoming Tom Hooper version, the only distinct difference looks to be the musical numbers. The costume design is impeccable leaving you with the feeling that this was a big budget Hollywood attempt to tell the classic tale.
LES MISERABLES was not always a musical, it is just remembered for that. The tale has been filmed almost a hundred times from various points of view of different characters, each time focusing on one main story or another. While the Hooper version may be the first time the musical will be seen on the big screen, this LES MISERABLES is the finest, in my opinion.
Oh, and if you have any suggestions for The UnPopular Opinion I’m always happy to hear them. You can send along an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, spell it out below, slap it up on my wall in Movie Fan Central, or send me a private message via Movie Fan Central. Provide me with as many movie suggestions as you like, with any reasoning you'd care to share, and if I agree then you may one day see it featured in this very column!