Before I get into this, I have a confession to make.
I’ve never read the book. I’ve heard my bibliophile friends raving about it, but I’ve never read it. I have a copy at home—two, actually. One’s in French, even. I started reading my English copy, but Victor Hugo spends the first ten chapters or so on one character, the priest, who has very little to do with the rest of the plot. I’m not going to lie; I got bored.
The book now rests in the back corner of my Kindle reader. I’ll get there someday.
I have seen the movie, however, and it’s fantastic. One would assume I’m talking about the most recent version, the opera starring Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman, but I’m not. I’m talking about Liam Neeson.
Yes, the guy from “Taken” and the lion Jesus from Narnia who moonlights with the A-Team and fights starving wolves. He does indeed have a certain set of skills; they’re called “acting.”
Hugo’s epic has been subjected to more adaptation than green bean casserole. A quick search on imdb.com merits every B movie and B actor one could imagine. Out of mere curiosity, I pulled up one of these on Netflix, a mini-series headlining John Malkovic as the stoic, oppressive moralist Javert. He had a Brooklyn accent. After choking back my supper, I laughed hysterically and turned it off.
Neeson’s adaptation (he didn’t direct it—that goes to Billie August) stands out not only as a well thought period piece, but as a tribute to a beautiful story.
As Jean Valjean, the lead and protagonist, Neeson personifies the character arc of Valjean with emotion that is not only stirring, but believable. He is at first a mongrel convict wandering the street, but his salvation at the hands of a priest turns him into the sort of man that men look up to. This whole time, Neeson is this man, or each version of this man, in every way, shape and form. He doesn’t miss a beat.
Geoffrey Rush (“Pirates of the Caribbean” and “The King’s Speech”) fills the role of Inspector Javert, and is as masterful as Neeson with Valjean. He is dark, rigid and full of self-righteous anger. I could feel his repulsion to Valjean’s repeated offerings of mercy like I was Javert himself.
Uma Thurman provides a hidden gem, bringing a frailty to Fantine that was endearing. I pitied her Fantine even more than I did Hathaway’s in the new film.
The cinematography isn’t overly stunning. The cameras remain still and take in the drama that moves the plot along. This works to the film’s advantage, however, in that we can take in 19th century France, which adds to its credibility.
I did see the new film, and it is awe inspiring, but one must have a taste for opera. Do not make the mistake of wandering into the theater expecting musical numbers between extended drama. It is an opera. Every single line is a song.
August’s film was released in 1998 without much acclaim, but is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated films in recent years. The characters are moving, the drama kept my attention and most of all, Hugo’s themes of mercy and humanity shout through the entirety of the work.
I didn’t cry during the opera, but watching Neeson’s Valjean the other night in my living room, I may have. But I’m not telling.