Rated PG-13 - Running time: 2:11 - Released 5/1/98

You know, there's a reason why classics are classics. One is reminded of that when one watches Bille August's production of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, adapted for the screen by Rafael Yglesias. This famous novel, about the struggles of the downtrodden in early 19th-century France and the good that comes from evil, is a mammoth project to undertake, but the cast assembled by Danish director August renders it admirably. Not only are his talents evident, but so are those of such names as Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, and Claire Danes. With a group like this, and with Hugo's literature, who could lose?

Neeson portrays ex-con Jean Valjean, a thief whose crime of stealing a loaf of bread landed him in prison for nearly 20 years. After being paroled, he returns to his life of crime, but that life is turned around by a simple act of forgiveness. Valjean turns to God and turns away from crime, learns to read, and becomes a pillar of his community — under an assumed name. He even becomes mayor.

But he is still pursued by Javert (Rush), the inspector who is rigidly bound to the law. Despite Valjean's growing reputation as a benevolent man and his many acts of kindness toward those beneath his social stature, Javert continues to pursue him. In fact, Javert's quest becomes a lifelong vendetta, searching for the fugitive who broke parole, even though Valjean has long since redeemed himself.

When a beautiful but terminally ill prostitute named Fantine (Thurman) comes to his attention, Valjean falls in love. He learns that she has an illegitimate daughter named Cosette (Mimi Newman), and promises to protect the girl after Fantine's death. Even as Javert's forces close in on Valjean, his love dies and he is united with the next passion of his life — the little girl whom he adopts as his own. When Cosette grows into a young woman (Danes), she falls in love with a revolutionary named Marius (Hans Matheson), and Valjean must choose between his own life and his daughter's happiness.

Condensing a huge novel like Les Misérables into a 2½-hour movie is a herculean task, and there are certainly many elements cut from the final product. But Yglesias's screenplay retains the main thematic point of redemption through forgiveness, and still develops most of the characters very well. Neither Valjean nor Javert is portrayed as pure good or evil; they both have strengths and weaknesses just as we all do.

Neeson and Rush are both excellent in these roles, as their relationship grows from a simple conflict to a sort of antithesis of each other. Thurman is beautiful and pathetic as Fantine; though she is dead less than halfway through the film, she leaves an indelible mark both on Valjean and on us. And the actresses portraying Cosette are both convincing as well, first Newman, showing the innocence of a little girl who knows nothing but a life of crime, and then Danes as a young woman raised in a convent, innocent of life altogether.

This version of Hugo's epic has neither the singing and dancing of the Broadway musical nor the sheer volume of the book, but still brings home the message of redemption through forgiveness, and, with the help of Basil Poledouris (music), Jörgen Persson (cinema), and Gabriella Pescucci (costume design), does so in beautiful style. ****½

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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