Les Misérables (1998)

These past days I have been looking for a movie–the movie to match my finals-month mood. The 1998 film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables wasn’t that movie. I have yet to find this movie.

But it must be said: Les Misérables had come close.

This all-cast film, starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, and Claire Danes (aka That Girl Every Girl is Measured Against*), was my first full encounter of the story: I haven’t watched the musical, and I have only read the abridged version of the novel. (And that was only after I have watched the film.) And yet, even in spite of the liberties it took with the details, I believe that the movie was a faithful rendering of the original story, which is first and foremost a tale of moral force and emotions.

Les Misérables centers on Jean Valjean (Neeson), a convict who seeks to pursue the freedom denied him for nineteen long years. An encounter with the Bishop Myriel instills in him the desire to be a “new man,” and as mayor of Vigau he uses his newfound fortune to develop the town and improve people’s lives. However, he is relentlessly pursued by the inflexible police officer Javert (Rush) who takes a personal interest in his case. At the same time, Valjean takes under his wing the terminally ill Fantine (Thurman), a worker who had turned to prostitution to meet the upkeep for the Thenadiérs’ raising her daughter, Cosette. With Fantine’s death, Valjean takes custody of Cosette, who blooms into a lovely young woman (Danes). Valjean’s interaction with the characters throughout the movie challenge him to further explore and live out what it means to be be moral, to be free, and to love.

The film really delivers emotionally. In the court scene, I really feel the tension as Valjean watches a simpleton being condemned by the testimony of his one-time inmates. The constant repetition of the court officer’s warning (that the testimony can ruin a man’s life), the audience’s derisive laughter, and the false Valjean’s striking simplicity all highlight the inner conflict going through the real convict’s soul. In the barricade scene, the terrible death of the child Gavroche strikes both the viewer and Marius, depicted in the movie as an eloquent and fashionable Republican–and the grim reality of death shakes him. And most interesting is the portrayal of Javert, played by the talented Rush. Cold and exact, Javert nonetheless captures a certain command of sympathy even as he denounces himself in front of Valjean (whom he thought he had wrongly accused of being the convict), and especially as he wrote his memo on the banks of the Seine, about to commit the first legally wrong yet morally right act in his entire life.

All in all, I believe this movie to be as poignant as the poster claims. Despite the absence of elements such as Eponine and Marius’ affinity with the Thenadiérs, Les Misérables focuses on what is essential. And in the end, as we watch Neeson smiling as he walks briskly, almost running, along the riverbank, we breathe in relief, we smile a little, even in spite of the many tragedies that has occurred, and we leave with the certainty that a man can be “decent in an indecent time,” that man can still be free.

*although, perhaps, the more accurate epithet is “That Girl Always Measured Against Every Other Girl,” as evidenced by the usual question, “What does Claire Danes have that (the other girl) doesn’t?”

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