Les Misérables

A solemn-faced Liam Neeson plays Jean Valjean, the kind-hearted 19th-century ex-con, in this latest adaptation of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. After an even-more-solemn-faced police inspector (Geoffrey Rush) discovers his past, Neeson spends several years in flight and hiding with the orphaned child he promised a dying prostitute (Uma Thurman) he would care for. The central message of Hugo's story, in whatever form it appears, is one of forgiveness and redemption. Maybe whoever assigned this project to one-time Bergman protégé Bille August took the message a bit too much to heart. After all, with his adaptation of Isabel Allende's House Of The Spirits, August has already proven that he can turn an acclaimed novel starring great actors into a botched disaster; plus, last year didn't find crowds flocking to his take on Peter Høeg's Smilla's Sense Of Snow. Fortunately, Les Misérables never reaches the depths House reached. In fact, for the first hour or so, August's slow, somber approach to the story is fairly effective. For example, the silent, half-relieved/half-guilty pause that occurs when Neeson, doing fine work once again, believes fate will prevent him from confessing himself in order to save a stranger from being falsely convicted, is poignant. But the film doesn't have enough such moments, and its second half gets bogged down by a poorly executed romantic subplot involving Claire Danes (as the grown-up orphan girl) and historical and political issues it never takes the time to fully explain. Also distracting is the way Danes floats in and out of an English accent; it makes sense that both Rush and Neeson would occasionally slip back into the accents of their countries of origin, but why would the American Danes play a French girl with an English accent? That issue aside, August's Les Misérables is the sort of film for which such faint-praise terms as "handsome" and "not bad" were invented. It's all of the above, and at times a bit better, but ultimately an experience akin to flipping through Cliffs Notes and a book of French paintings at the same time.

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