There have been countless versions of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, including that world-conquering pop opera. Hugo, who had an ego the size of the Napoleonic Empire, would have loved all the fuss that's been made over his multi-voluminous tract. But what would he have thought of Bille August's new nonmusical version--a cinematic Cliff Notes that retains most of the bones, some of the meat, little of the flesh and none of the heart of Hugo's 1862 novel? Would he have been glad to see it put through its paces again? Or would he have tried to put it out of its misery? They shoot horses, don't they? Liam Neeson is Jean Valjean, the man who steals a loaf of bread and then spends the rest of his life paying for it. Geoffrey Rush is Javert, the police inspector who hounds Valjean from one side of France to the other. August and screenwriter Rafael Yglesias have zeroed in on Valjean and Javert, who are shown to be the flip sides of post-revolutionary France's political character--Valjean representing the hunger for freedom and equality, Javert representing a steady diet of law and order. In other words, Rush's Javert isn't quite the mustache-twirling maniac we're used to, although the movie might be better off if he were. August's Les Misérables is, well, august--stately, dignified and more than a tad boring. And silly, almost in spite of itself. All the actors adopt British accents, for example, even Americans Uma Thurman (as Valjean's not-quite-wife, Fantine) and Claire Danes (as Valjean's not-quite-daughter, Cosette). This from a Danish director? Actually, the only time the actors adopt French accents is when they're pronouncing someone's name, the execution of which is one of the movie's few true pleasures. "I am Zho Vah-zho," Neeson says, as if suddenly choking on a croissant. The other linguistic tickler is when Hans Matheson, as Cosette's radical-student lover, Marius, delivers the famous line "To the barricades!" as if he were ordering a pizza.
The movie has a nice look. Cinematographer Jorgen Persson uses grays and browns punctuated by deep shades of green, blue and red--Goya's "The Third of May" crossed with Delacroix's "Liberty Leading the People." But there's little of the volcanic passion that Goya and Delacroix brought to those famous political paintings. Does August have too icy a temperament to convey the sheer heat of revolutionary and Napoleonic turmoil? Everything's muted--Valjean's goodness, Javert's badness. Neeson plays the convict with conviction, I suppose, but it's hard to rally behind him. As for Rush's Javert, he's...stately, dignified and more than a tad boring.