Les Misérables (review)

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Dynamic Duo

“It makes a mockery of our institutions to have a corrupt and depraved man in charge of our industry, our governments.” Oddly enough, this isn’t a quote from Kenneth Starr but from Inspector Javert in Bille August’s film adaptation of Les Misérables.

And as in the drama playing out in Washington, Les Misérables casts as its villain not an evil man but one too rigid and too stubborn to see any possibility of redemption in a former wrongdoer.
The plot of Victor Hugo’s notoriously difficult novel (not that I’ve read it myself) is widely known thanks to the worldwide hit musical production (which I have seen several times, and love to bits): A generation after the French Revolution, Jean Valjean, having spent 20 years doing hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread, breaks parole and makes a new life for himself. His success as a factory owner and mayor of a small town is threatened years later by the arrival in town of Inspector Javert, who was a guard in Valjean’s prison and is now appalled to find a criminal leading the life of a gentleman. Valjean runs again, this time with Cosette, the small child of Fantine, a peasant who falls ill and dies as a result of losing her job in Valjean’s factory. Valjean raises Cosette as his own daughter in Paris, until a student revolutionary, Marius, threatens to come between them when he falls in love with Cosette.

Even knowing the whole story — indeed, I’m embarrassed to admit that I found myself singing along with the story even though this isn’t a musical — I was absolutely enthralled by the film thanks to Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush. These two powerful actors make Les Misérables totally engrossing.

Liam Neeson’s Valjean is a gentle giant of a man, wishing merely for a peaceful life and striving to better himself and make up for his crimes and mistakes. Scenes such as one in which he’s teaching himself to read are touching in their simplicity. When Valjean must resort to violence — as when Javert confronts him as he’s about to fetch Cosette for the dying Fantine — Neeson makes you feel Valjean’s reluctance to revert to his former criminal ways.

Geoffrey Rush — one of the most compelling actors onscreen today — makes Javert less a villain than a man driven by his own hard concept of justice. The quote above comes from a spellbinding scene in which Javert begs permission of his superiors in Paris to investigate the mayor, the man he believes is Valjean. His request is at first denied, but he pushes and pushes until, one suspects, permission is given merely to shut him up.

And when Valjean and Javert face off, it’s like the immovable object meeting the irresistible force. Neeson and Rush are electric together. When Javert is first introduced to the mayor, he does not immediately suspect that this is Valjean, but Valjean recognizes the cold gaze of the man before him at once, and there is a long, silent moment during which Neeson, with only a twitch in his face, seems to shrivel up in fear. Later, when Javert’s suspicions are fully formed but Valjean more prepared to face him, one wonders if Javert’s searing gaze of hatred at the man so casually denying his accusations might burn a hole through the screen.

Neeson, a head taller and much heftier than Rush, could easily threaten to overwhelm Rush with his onscreen presence, but that never happens. Their characters and their performances are so perfectly balanced that you can almost see them feeding off each other’s energy in an endless feedback loop, making both of them stronger than they’d have been alone.

That kind of chemistry all too rare, and it’s a reminder of how thrilling movies can — and should — be.

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