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Review: Les Misérables TV Miniseries 2000 (Depardieu/Malkovich): English

What stands out the most for me about the 2000 TV adaptation of Les Misérables are the unusual character choices and the strong presence of the Thénardier family as a real menace. I wanted to like it a lot more than I did, but there’s still enough there that I’d like to see the longer, French version sometime.

Characters

John Malkovich plays Javert as very matter-of-fact, almost bored. Rather than intensely cruel, he seems like he’d really rather the scum of the street just get it over with and go to jail so he can get back to what he was doing (but you have no idea what that was). Some of that is John Malkovich, but some is the script: for instance, he actually catches Fantine the first time she’s out at night, and lets her go on the basis that she hasn’t crossed the line yet. It took some getting used to, and I’m still not sure how well it worked – but it also made his last hours, helping Valjean carry Marius home from the barricade, seem more in character.

I liked that we got to see into Cosette’s head a bit more than usual. What does she think of all the moving, all the name changes? She knows something’s up, but her father has earned her trust, so she comes up with an honorable business-related explanation for it all. Virginie Ledoyen plays her with enough range that she becomes a person (unlike the 1978 cardboard stand-up or the 1952 floor lamp). And there’s a fascinating scene where she and Éponine (Asia Argento) meet as adults. Éponine admits she was horrible to Cosette as a child, but she’s following enough in her parents’ footsteps that she has no thought of asking forgiveness.

I also liked Otto Sander’s portrayal of Monsieur Bienvenu as a much more practical Bishop Myriel than the saintly way he’s often portrayed. He’s still kind to a fault, of course — he has to be, since his kindness is literally what changes Valjean’s life — but his wit has a little more bite to it, and he becomes a bit more of a character in his own right (even for the handful of minutes he appears) instead of simply remaining a plot device.

Gerard Depardieu’s Valjean is more driven by fear than other versions I’ve seen. It’s obviously a big part of his character, trying to evade capture for years, but here it seems stronger than his need to pay forward the Bishop’s trust in him. It makes him seem less present? I’ve also seen some remarks on his interest toward Cosette being…a bit strong, shall we say? But that didn’t come through in the cut that I saw, so I imagine it’s different in the longer version.

Expanse

One of my favorite things about this version is that almost everyone is involved. The Thénardiers don’t disappear after one scene, we see them again in Paris — and they’re not comic relief, they’re full-blown villains. Even Azelma’s included. Éponine’s actually meaner than in the book, which is the opposite direction that she’s usually taken, though Azelma’s more thoroughly their parents’ daughter.

Overall it’s a more faithful adaptation than most of the movies I’ve seen, and there are tons of details showing that they really did their research, like little Éponine swinging on a cart chain when Fantine and Cosette arrive in Montfermeil, or Mme Gorbeau, or the festive atmosphere before the barricades go up. But there are also a lot of odd, random changes that don’t seem to be there for movie logic or adaptation reasons, just someone wanted to do something different.

Abridged Edition

I mentioned there’s a longer version. Apparently this miniseries was produced as a four-part (1½ hours each) miniseries in French, and cut down to two parts (also 1½ hours each) in English. The cast is mostly French and German, with a few exceptions like Malkovich and Argento. Literally 50% of the running time was cut, which is utterly ridiculous.

In the version I watched, part one runs from Valjean’s prison time through Cosette leaving the convent, and part two picks up with Marius and Cosette meeting in the park, and runs through the rest of the story. Yes, all the way to the end. Part one works dramatically. Sure, more detail would be nice, but it all flows together well enough. Part two, however, has several places where you where you can tell that parts of the story are missing. You can put together what must have happened, but the gaps stand out — especially during the barricade section.

I’m really curious to see the full version. How much of the story flows better? What scenes made the longer cut? What other things did they change that didn’t make it to the shorter release? And heck, what other weird things did they change that don’t make sense?

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Review: Les Misérables Movie 1952

The 1952 version of Les Misérables is an odd one. It’s a decent movie overall, though none of the cast really made an impression. Elsa Lanchester is the only name that I can remember without looking it up, and she’s in a tiny role.

The cinematography is good: Except for the opening scene at Valjean’s trial, everything has a strong sense of being part of an actual, lived-in place, with people going about their lives in the background. Fight choreography in the barricade scenes is markedly better than in the earlier film. Though I was amused that Valjean’s papers have the word “YELLOW” stamped across them to get around the fact that the film is black and white.

Oddly Familiar

It’s clearly influenced by the 1935 version, or else both draw from some intermediate adaptation. They follow the same structure, from Valjean’s initial trial through Javert’s death, with a tightened timeline (only 10 years in prison). Both feature scenes, beats, and even dialogue in common that aren’t in the book: Javert as a warden, refusing to let the guards remove the collar from an injured man due to regulations. Title cards reading “Thus ends the first phase in the life of Jean Valjean.” Rescuing Cosette before Fantine dies, allowing them a reunion. Champmathieu could almost have been reused footage if he hadn’t been interacting with the other actors.

There’s also the travel itinerary for Valjean’s parole. I don’t recall it coming up in the book, but it’s brought up in the 1935, 1952 & 2012 films. I assume it’s something that one scriptwriter or another found in their research, but it makes me wonder where it first showed up.

But it diverges significantly from other versions and the book in several ways:

Altered for the Fifties

An entirely new character, Robert, befriends “M. Madeleine” when he arrives in town and becomes his confidante and second-in-command at the factory. It’s nice to see how “Madeleine” establishes himself, but Robert only really gives the actor someone to talk to before the action moves to Paris. (The Thénardiers and Éponine are missing entirely, though Gavroche at least gets his street lamp smashing moment.)

Marius becomes a rough-and-tumble revolutionary who manages to get his shirt off as soon as he meets Cosette. After fleeing from the police, jumping over the convent wall and meeting the gardener, he’s got a shoulder wound and Cosette’s got nursing skills. He spends his time making demands of people and acting tough, because that’s what 1950s audiences expect in a revolutionary, I suppose. Also, I think he’s in his mid-thirties.

Cosette’s portrayal, and the way Valjean and Marius treat her, makes for a disturbing comparison between 1935 and 1952 Hollywood. In 1935, it’s clear that she and Marius are pursuing one another, and while her agency is limited, it exists, and the two men in her life treat her as a person. Here, the last third of the film is dominated by Marius and Valjean being possessive, dismissing her wishes, being suspicious of each other’s motives, and arguing over who she should go with. Marius repeatedly insists that Valjean shouldn’t make her choices, saying, “She’s not a child, she’s a woman!” — but he doesn’t mean that Cosette should make her own choices. He means he should make them. As for Cosette herself, she’s mostly overwhelmed the whole time. It’s a sobering example of the post-World War II backlash against self-reliant women in movies.

Inspector One-Note

Javert never doubts himself, never thinks he’s denounced the wrong man. It’s not clear whether he planted the idea that Champmathieu was Jean Valjean or took advantage of it, but he’s clearly trying to trap Madeleine into revealing himself, and the result is less “What a relief, I was right after all!” and more “Gotcha!” It’s funny that a scene that didn’t make it into the musical for 30 years has become so critical to my view of the character: It shows how Javert’s sense of law and punishment applies to himself, and sets up both a more fervent response when Valjean is unmasked and his ultimate undoing after the night of the barricades. Without that scene, and without some sort of view into his head (like the musical does with “Stars”), he loses depth.

Overall: not a bad film for its time, but I liked the 1935 version (which this was packaged with) better.

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Review: Les Misérables Movie 1935 (Starring Frederic March and Charles Laughton)

I quite liked Richard Boleslawski’s 1935 movie of Les Misérables starring Charles Laughton as Javert and Frederic March as Jean Valjean. Like the 1978 version it focuses heavily on Valjean vs. Javert, starting with Valjean’s trial. But you get just enough of the other characters like the students (and even the bishop) to make them seem real. It feels like their stories are intersecting instead of them just being part of Valjean’s background.

It’s contemporary with the classic Universal monster movies, and the cinematography kept reminding me of the Frankenstein series. Though I have to admit fight choreography has improved over the years…

Les Misérables 1935 and 1952

March has strong presence as Valjean throughout, though the star is clearly Laughton. His Javert, rather than being stony, is nervous and has a bit of an inferiority complex due to his family background. It becomes the reason he’s such an overachiever and holds everyone, himself included, to an impossible standard, and when he slips, the cracks show quickly. He even helps lifting the cart, showing the heroic side that’s often left out.

A refrain that links Valjean and Fantine: “Do you know what it’s like to be hungry and out of work?” In 1935, probably a big chunk of their audience did.

Speaking of Fantine, one of the biggest changes to the story is that Valjean actually manages to get Cosette before Fantine dies. It’s the only version I’ve watched so far where Cosette sees her mom past the age of two. This also means there are a lot fewer secrets between her and her adoptive father.

Those College Kids: What a Riot

The students are basically Marius and his rabble-rousing pals. They make the point that they only want to reform the justice system, which I suppose keeps them thematically connected to Valjean, but is presented in an awkward, editorial-made-us-do-this way. Reducing the insurrection and barricade to a mere riot makes for the weakest part of the adaptation. On the other hand, having the heightened police presence in Valjean’s bolthole neighborhood heightens the tension nicely.

Cosette and Marius actually spend time getting to know each other. It’s maybe a thirty-second montage of their dates, but it was nice to see them having a relationship instead of simply simply being struck by love at first sight.

I had to wonder if they filmed and deleted more scenes with Cosette and Éponine. The Thénardiers barely appear even in the earlier segment, and Éponine isn’t named as a child that I can recall. Yet during the riots, when Éponine is acting as a messenger, Cosette recognizes her name. She doesn’t say or do anything about it, but you can watch the penny drop in what’s essentially an Easter egg for those who have read the book.

In the End…

This is another one where the story ends with Javert’s suicide, but unlike the 1998 version, it doesn’t feel abrupt or unearned as an ending. The reason is that Valjean has already said his tearful goodbyes to Cosette and a barely-conscious Marius.

The DVD edition I watched is two-sided, and has the 1952 remake on the back. That one’s a decent film for its time, but I didn’t like it as much as this one.

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Review: Les Misérables Movie 1998 (Starring Liam Neeson & Geoffrey Rush)

Les Misérables 1998 posterI don’t remember why I never got around to watching the 1998 Les Misérables movie before — I was heavily into the musical at the time it was released (even subscribing to a fan newsletter and running my own fan website), and I was certainly aware of the film. It may have simply been a matter of “it’s not the musical” (or possibly “Éponine isn’t in it”).

Whatever the reason, I never got around to watching it until now.

On one hand, I wish I had seen it at the time. On the other, I might have been more caught up in “Augh! It’s different!” objections when I was younger. I’m a lot more mellow about adaptation changes these days, except when they completely miss the point. Not that it’s hugely different, but there are some fairly major changes.

It’s beautifully shot, some of it on location in Paris. It’s as visually appealing as the Tom Hooper-directed 2012 musical (my review) — more so, when you factor in how gritty the 2012 version gets. (The sewers in this version must have been the cleanest in Europe. The sewers in the Hooper version….let’s jus say they’re a bit more true to the sewers in the book.) I’m not familiar with director Bille August‘s work, but I see that he also directed The House and the Spirits – a movie that I remember thinking (at 18) was a dull waste of a great cast. Fortunately I never got that feeling here, though both are epics dealing with the intersection of family drama and political turmoil.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the music was composed by Basil Poledouris, whose score for Conan the Barbarian is one of my favorites, but this score didn’t make much of an impression.

Story

This is another adaptation that focuses heavily on Jean Valjean’s story, to the exclusion of everyone else’s threads, in order to cram at least one complete story into a single movie. (The musical is unusual in that it actually treats the story as an ensemble piece.) It’s not quite as extreme as the Jordan/Perkins version. Sure, it drops the Thénardiers once the action moves to Paris, and the rebellion seems to take about as long as the chase through the sewers. But Fantine and Cosette have more presence, and it does a much better job of setting up the revolutionaries and making it feel like they have their own story that’s intersecting with Valjean’s, even if you don’t see much of it.

The acting is much more…human here than in the 1978 version, though it does suffer from not showing you at least a little of Valjean’s backstory at the beginning.

Modernization

I liked the way they tried to expand Fantine’s story, showing a little more of her slow descent into poverty and giving her and Valjean the beginnings of a relationship, cut short by the fact that she’s dying. You can imagine the two of them raising Cosette together in a happier world.

I also liked what they did with Cosette, giving her more agency and allowing some of the fire to burn that is tightly controlled by 1832 society in the book, and completely absent from the 1978 version (my review; she and Marius could both be replaced by cardboard cutouts). She’s the one who chooses to leave the convent, not Valjean. She demands answers from her father…and gets them. She even convinces him to help Marius during the rebellion.

Maybe it was just a way to give Uma Thurman and Claire Danes more to do, but I think it made for a better film. Though it did write them into a corner at the end. (I’ll get back to that later.)

I was impressed that, 16 years ago, they took the bold step of making Enjolras black…until I saw that they’d made him second in command. Way to throw away an opportunity.

Alterations

Les Misérables 1998 Blu-Ray

A lot of the changes to the story, particularly those that would have bothered me at 22, are clearly designed to raise the stakes of the drama. Jean Valjean actually strikes Bishop Myriel during the robbery. Javert actually witnesses the attack on Fantine (by three men, not just one), and arrests her when she fights back. Marius isn’t a hanger-on with the revolutionaries, he’s their leader. And it isn’t fear of Javert that prompts Valjean to leave Paris, it’s Javert showing up at his door…for, as it turns out, a completely unrelated reason: he’s trailing Marius. This leads to several scenes in which Javert and Cosette actually meet…including a physical confrontation between Javert, Cosette, and Marius. (Javert needs to learn: you don’t try to kidnap Liam Neeson’s daughter.)

For the most part, these changes work. But it’s baffling when they make changes that don’t have any clear purpose, except maybe to make them easier for the English-speaking actors to pronounce, like changing names (Fauchelevent becomes Lafitte, and Montreuil-sur-Mer becomes Vigau).

And then there’s the fact that Valjean actually tells Cosette the whole truth during the insurrection. That makes the main conflict for the last 100 pages of the book impossible, which is probably why they just stop with Javert’s suicide. My wife and I watched as the credits rolled, and said to each other, “They’re leaving it here?” But the earlier change didn’t leave them anywhere to go, except maybe the wedding.

It’s the only way to honestly walk away with anything resembling a happy ending, but it’s also deeply unsatisfying.

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Review: Les Misérables Movie 1978 (Starring Richard Jordan and Anthony Perkins)

Les Misérables 1978 DVD CoverI think I’ve unwittingly started another project: watching the various movie adaptations of Les Misérables. One of the hazards of searching Netflix by title.

I watched the 1978 film starring Richard Jordan and Anthony Perkins. It’s extremely focused on the story of Jean Valjean vs. Javert, and while it’s able to add more to that thread, the whole suffers. The Thénardiers are basically gone, you don’t get any sense of what Fantine was like before her fall, and the insurrection and barricade feel like just one more event in passing, not the culmination of a major storyline.

And while they didn’t technically change the ending, they stopped early enough to make it happy.

Performances

Jordan is a good Valjean during the first half of the movie, but is somehow diminished in presence after the final time-skip to 1832. I can’t quite put my finger on why.

Perkins is an imposing Javert, and as in the book he tends toward insufferability and even cruelty when he’s sure of himself. The confrontation at Fantine’s deathbed is a particularly frustrating scene to watch, and yet it’s exactly what happens in the book. He’s also completely obsessed, to the point that he requests a transfer specifically to follow Valjean to Paris, and contests another transfer that puts him off the trail.

Ian Holm shows a lot of promise as Thénardier, but sadly only appears in one scene. I’d really hoped to see the shrewd, dangerous Thénardier of the novel.

Story

The film opens with Jean Valjean’s theft of the bread, and spends some 20 minutes or so following him through his prison sentence and various escape attempts, showing his descent from a fundamentally decent man to a savage animal. He really is “a dangerous man” by the time he gets out. Strangely, Valjean is never released on parole in this version. Instead, he escapes by falling into the river (as he does during his second stint in prison).

Some of the characters glossed over in the musical get a little more attention here: Bishop Myriel’s wit has a chance to shine. Mme. Magloire actually has lines. Even Sister Simplice, the ageless woman who never speaks a word that isn’t true, appears. But the whole Thénardier family is gone, including Éponine. Even the ABC students are little more than background characters.

Every once in a while someone speaks a line of philosophy, and the phrasing sounded familiar every time. This would have been just two years after the Norman Denny translation that I just finished reading. I wonder if that’s the one they were working from.

Some details I liked seeing:

  • Valjean quoting regulations to Javert to claim jurisdiction over Fantine
  • Fauchelevent’s interview with the Mother Superior at the convent — a rare bit of humor.
  • How and why Valjean and Cosette left the convent.

The chase through the streets of Paris was done much better here than in the 2012 movie, though they decided to set it during the day.

Things start really diverging after the jump to 1832. All the time they put into Valjean’s prison sentence has a cost, and that’s cutting the rest of the story down to the bone…and then amputating.

The ABC students never really get any focus. They’re giving speeches in the park when Cosette and Marius start making goo-goo eyes at each other, and then a few scenes later they’re fighting at the barricade, with no build-up. As near as I can tell, the fighting is continuous (with one odd break, which I’ll get to later). And while I say “students,” I could swear Enjolras is 40. Marius, on the other hand, looks like he’s desperately trying to look older by growing a beard.

The movie takes the same love-at-first-sight shortcut that the musical does, but without the songs, and without enough screen time dedicated to the blossoming romance, it’s not convincing.

Marius’ grandfather actually has something to do in this version, though why they put him in a gigantic country palace instead of a well-to-do Parisian house, I couldn’t tell you. He’s rich, but he’s not that rich.

Back to the barricade: Gavroche dies just returning from his errand. If they were going to include him at all, you’d think they’d feature his signature moment. Then Valjean shows up, and the army stops shooting because “he’s a loyalist” while he picks up Gavroche’s body and carries it over to the barricade. Then they start up again. He’s got some serious Plot Armor.

It feels like they were going down a list of bullet points from a plot outline, crossing off what wouldn’t fit, and just making sure the others appeared on screen without really connecting them. I found out afterward that the DVD is actually cut down from the original version, and the additional 30 minutes include the scene in which Valjean is buried alive. I would have loved to see that. I also wonder if the full version paid more attention to the rebels and barricade.

One thing that bothered me was Javert declaring when he confronts Valjean in the sewers that “there is no God, only the law.” That’s not how he thinks at all. He believes in order, and the order of society includes the church, but since he believes the law is infallible, he just assumes God agrees with the law and doesn’t really give it much thought. What ends up breaking his mind is that the levels of “right” above him have come into conflict. Giving him this line not only alters his character, it casts the entire story as a struggle between a good Christian and an evil atheist, instead of the struggle between two men who are both trying to be good, one helping people at the expense of the social order, the other preserving the social order at the expense of people.

The ending works well enough if you don’t know that the original story runs all the way to Valjean’s death. It’s at least a matter of just stopping early rather than altering events to make them turn out happy (Valjean is too melancholy for that to have rung true), and it’s still a bittersweet ending, but it doesn’t quite fit. It could be worse, though — the 1998 movie cuts out even earlier, and I once saw a version of The Glass Menagerie that had a happy ending.

Overall

If you’re in it for the Valjean/Javert story, this is a great version to watch, especially the first half, before it settles into bullet-point storytelling. If you like the other characters more, you won’t find a lot here.

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