Volume 92, Issue 1

Friday, May 15, 1998

empty pockets


ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
 

Misery loves Hollywood




By Lisa Weaver
Gazette Staff


Will Hollywood ever tire of turning the greatest novels ever written into easily digestible synopses of the major plot events?

Despite this awful trend towards cheap cinematic adaptations, Victor Hugo's massive nineteenth-century novel has been adequately grappled within Bille August's latest film, Les Misérables.

Instead of attempting to capture the entirety of the novel, August has focused on its main theme – redemption. The use of a single, narrow focus has given the film a sense of cohesiveness, a lens through which each of the characters can be viewed. Unlike Hugo's work, the film centres entirely upon Jean Valjean, a man whose simple crime leads him to a life marked by the title of "convict."

Liam Neeson (Schindler's List) characterizes Valjean perfectly, as his hard-faced look and soft-voiced manner tell the tale of the hardships he has endured. Valjean alters his ways, becoming the revered mayor of Vigau. He falls in love with Fantine, a dying, troubled young woman, played by Uma Thurman. Claire Danes plays Cosette, Fantine's beautiful daughter, who is raised by Valjean.

Police officer Javert (Geoffrey Rush, Shine) is a constant threat to Valjean and Cosette, as they strive to live "good" lives. Rush's manner is quite similar to Neeson's – and the two begin to act as two sides of the same man. Both are struggling to uphold their own ideas of truth and honour in the face of adversity, often choosing paths which force them to make sacrifices.

The colours and backgrounds used in this film add greatly to its overall feeling. Neutral greys and browns blend together to create a landscape which is at times as oppressive as the forces playing upon its inhabitants. The French urban setting, therefore, is often as interesting and captivating as the storyline.

The saving grace of this film is its players – without the strength of Neeson and Rush, Les Misérables would have come off as another weak adaptation. The audience is immediately drawn into the lives of the characters, but no one is ever sure of which man is doing the "right" thing. Colossal ideas such as "truth" and "honour" are called into question throughout the film, which offers no concrete answers.

August has succeeded in creating an adaptation which forces the audience to act as reader and interpreter rather than complacent viewer. Les Misérables acts as an investigative essay on Hugo's novel, rather than another glitzy Hollywood exploitation of classic literature.


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