Les Miserables

May 6, 1998 at 12:00 am

Sometimes one asks too much of a film. By the time Valjean (Liam Neeson) and Cosette (Claire Danes) reach a Paris rife with street urchins and toothless peasants on the eve of an uprising, a big musical number seems in order. Fantine (Uma Thurman with British accent and spritzed bust) has just died and Javert (Geoffrey Rush) is in hot pursuit. But after an hour and a half of running around, one hopes he might pause to rent the piano and frilly shirts from Shine for a little ditty in front of the barricades, something to help us through to the big finish in the tunnel.

Alas, even though director Bille August delivers a "greatest hits" package of plot points from Victor Hugo's venerable story, there's nary a note to liven things up. August, he of Pelle the Conquerer and other downers, does not do fun!

He begins the film with Valjean nipping the bishop's silver and taking the high road to clean living as a mayor in a provincial town, only to be sussed out by the dogged Javert. (Rush is a trouper in the role, all tight-lipped decorum and top-hatted menace). And Neeson's Valjean appears as a sort of Zen fugitive, completely confident and calm in his escape improvisations.

Courtesy of August's torpid direction, the only real energy of the film comes from the psychic static between repressed hothead Javert and soul surfer Valjean. As with Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List, Neeson requires a suitable foil of sympathetic evil to bring out a world-weary confidence that resonates with an almost spiritual quality of inevitable catharsis. Javert dies; Valjean lives -- each cleansed of the bad karma of flight and pursuit. Without rest, revolution is pointless.

Indeed, one can only take so many steely-eyed glances, barbed exchanges, packed bags and midnight coach rides. If Bille August really wanted to capture the heroics of the tale in a new way, he would have paid less attention to faithful adaptation and more to fancy footwork.

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