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The UnPopular Opinion: Les Miserables (1998)

Dec. 5, 2012by: Alex Maidy

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 alexmaidy@joblo.com, 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!

Source: JoBlo.com

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+5
10:09AM on 12/05/2012
I had no idea that this movie had tanked at the box office. It's great! I'm not a fan of musicals but I absolutely love Les Mis whether its the musical or this version. The story is just excellent.
I had no idea that this movie had tanked at the box office. It's great! I'm not a fan of musicals but I absolutely love Les Mis whether its the musical or this version. The story is just excellent.
Your Reply:



+2
7:28AM on 12/05/2012
Nice one but I prefer the french version with Gerard Derpadieu and John Malcovich.
Nice one but I prefer the french version with Gerard Derpadieu and John Malcovich.
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10:01AM on 12/05/2012
I love this movie and its one of my favorites. I did not know this was an unpopular opinion. I guess I always assumed everyone who seen it enjoyed it. So I never bothered to look into how well it did at the box office, or what the public or critic opinion was. Maybe I had this perception because I knew nothing about the film, play, or book prior to watching it. I just remember picking it up in Blockbuster, to read the back to determine if I was going to rent it or not.
I love this movie and its one of my favorites. I did not know this was an unpopular opinion. I guess I always assumed everyone who seen it enjoyed it. So I never bothered to look into how well it did at the box office, or what the public or critic opinion was. Maybe I had this perception because I knew nothing about the film, play, or book prior to watching it. I just remember picking it up in Blockbuster, to read the back to determine if I was going to rent it or not.
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9:48AM on 12/05/2012
I actually did go see this in the theater. I guess it's unpopular on the strength of it not being widely seen, but I don't know many people who hate this movie. In all honesty, I thought for a moment that was going to be your approach. I do agree pretty much with everything you say though.
I actually did go see this in the theater. I guess it's unpopular on the strength of it not being widely seen, but I don't know many people who hate this movie. In all honesty, I thought for a moment that was going to be your approach. I do agree pretty much with everything you say though.
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2:38PM on 01/12/2013

WHALE PRANKS presents JEFF ON MOVIES!

[link] - Jeff saw Les Miserables! CHECK IT OUT #WHALEPRANKS @WHALEPRANKS
[link] - Jeff saw Les Miserables! CHECK IT OUT #WHALEPRANKS @WHALEPRANKS
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9:46AM on 12/05/2012

Unfortunately Les Mis is always boring

So while I appreciate what you're going for here, every live production and every movie adaptation I've ever seen of this (3 times in 3 decades) has just failed to wow me. I know, despite the fact that I love opera and live theater I will be labeled uncouth and uncultured, because this is one of those "must love" pieces of culture that absolutely baffles me in its popularity.
So while I appreciate what you're going for here, every live production and every movie adaptation I've ever seen of this (3 times in 3 decades) has just failed to wow me. I know, despite the fact that I love opera and live theater I will be labeled uncouth and uncultured, because this is one of those "must love" pieces of culture that absolutely baffles me in its popularity.
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12:31PM on 01/02/2013
This is actually a well written unpopular opinion. I love the musical AND this film (until Valjean happily skips away after witnessing Javert's suicide...that was always a terrible moment)
This is actually a well written unpopular opinion. I love the musical AND this film (until Valjean happily skips away after witnessing Javert's suicide...that was always a terrible moment)
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8:53AM on 12/05/2012
An Unpopular Opinion for a movie that wasn't widely seen?.....You should have picked a different movie.
An Unpopular Opinion for a movie that wasn't widely seen?.....You should have picked a different movie.
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9:47AM on 12/05/2012

This movie exists? I had no idea. Then again I could care less about musicals

I don't consider them elevated entertainment the way devotees to them do. I think of them as juvenile and simplistic placating slop for half wits who are stupid to miss the other half.
When Hugh Jackman yelled out 'the musical is back!' at the Oscars I was laughing so hard I barely got audible when I asked if his Hollywife told him to say that or one of his close male friends (assuming they didn't have their mouth's full).
This one doesn't have music so that gets it some points. Liam Nesson
I don't consider them elevated entertainment the way devotees to them do. I think of them as juvenile and simplistic placating slop for half wits who are stupid to miss the other half.
When Hugh Jackman yelled out 'the musical is back!' at the Oscars I was laughing so hard I barely got audible when I asked if his Hollywife told him to say that or one of his close male friends (assuming they didn't have their mouth's full).
This one doesn't have music so that gets it some points. Liam Nesson gets it more points. I might actually have to try this one out.
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7:01PM on 12/05/2012
If you truly think musicals are 'simplistic' and 'juvenile', perhaps you should check out the work of Stephen Sondheim.
His material is adult, complex, and usually quite depressing. But it is, inarguably, brilliant.
"Follies" is quite possibly the greatest musical of all time, challenged only by his other works.
If you truly think musicals are 'simplistic' and 'juvenile', perhaps you should check out the work of Stephen Sondheim.
His material is adult, complex, and usually quite depressing. But it is, inarguably, brilliant.
"Follies" is quite possibly the greatest musical of all time, challenged only by his other works.