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Movie skims "Miserables' surface

Published Sep. 13, 2005

Nobody sings in Bille August's version of Les Miserables, although an adaptation of the long-running Broadway hit would have been a better idea. This is one of those films that Hollywood studios like to tackle now and then to prove they have taste and reverence for the classics, right before the original material gets trimmed to a superficial outline for shorter attention spans.

Stripped of Victor Hugo's luxurious prose and the adventuresome conceit of the stage musical, the new Les Miserables turns out to be rather bland, except for devotees of the story who can fill in the narrative gaps. It has the expansive look and grim nobility of an epic, yet August takes such a chilly approach to the tale that it misses the one factor any successful epic must contain: a sense of timelessness.

August's straightforward presentation doesn't do much to bring Hugo's 19th-century novel up to speed with present-day situations and sensibilities. An easily sympathetic hero and a couple of teary, ill-fated romances aren't enough. We long for some daring moves that would match the gambles taken by recent Shakespeare remakes, such as a modern setting or those Schonberg-Kretzmer songs. Anything that wouldn't make this feel like a lit. assignment.

One can imagine younger viewers who are unfamiliar with the book wondering how a guy could do 19 years of hard labor for merely stealing a loaf of bread, or why a cop spends another decade tracking him down. The desperation of revolutionary times barely comes into focus for the convict, and the obsession of the hunter seems more petulant than anything.

Two actors who excel in portraying stern honor make this serial confrontation watchable, even as the coincidences that bring them together seem implausible without more passion. Liam Neeson plays the fugitive Jean Valjean, and his bearish frame and gentle eyes always create an instant rapport with the audience. Valjean has been recently paroled when August's film begins, with only a brief flashback of his years in prison. He resorts to crime again, and receives an unexpected break accepted as a sign from God to make a better life for himself.

The plot leaps ahead nine years; Valjean has taken a new name and a benevolent role as the mayor of the town of Vigau. The new police inspector Javert is a dutiful sort who recognizes Valjean as a former inmate but can't prove it. Valjean announces his true identity in order to save an innocent man from the gallows and the chase is on. Les Miserables manufactures an admirable dreariness that Hugo would appreciate, with artificial grime and a slate-gray pall in every frame of Jorgen Persson's photography.

It seems a stretch of logic today to believe that France had only one top cop and he's everywhere, with no one better than a petty thief to pursue. Modern movie fans will recognize the scenario as one borrowed for The Fugitive, with the innocent drifter stopping to help the wretched until that relentless detective gets too close.

Valjean's chief charity project is a dying prostitute named Fantine (Uma Thurman) and later her daughter Cosette (Claire Danes). The young woman's love for a young revolutionary (Hans Matheson) is another karma crossing that brings Javert closer to Valjean.

Les Miserables fits somewhere in the void between commercial and aesthetic tastes, too somber for the multiplexes and too superficial for the art houses. Columbia Pictures is grasping for young moviegoers with television ads that focus on Danes' dreamboat romance scenes with Matheson. These clips don't show Valjean and Javert in conflict, or note that Danes _ the co-star (with Leonardo!) of Romeo and Juliet _ doesn't appear until the second hour. The only pursuit that matters is the one where a slow movie chases a fast buck.


Les Miserables

Grade: B-

Director: Bille August

Cast: Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, Claire Danes, Hans Matheson

Screenplay: Rafael Yglesias, based on the novel by Victor Hugo

Rating: PG-13; violence, sexual situations

Running time: 130 min.