Add Bille August to the list of filmmakers who have achieved something so unimaginable that you have to see it to believe it. In his new film of "Les Miserables," August actually manages to make Claire Danes seem inauthentic for the first time in her career. It isn't her fault. You can still detect Danes' direct access to her emotions beneath the crinolines and curls and several extremely silly hats she wears in this film version of Victor Hugo's classic novel. It isn't her emotions that seem faked, it's the whole damn contraption of a movie she's stuck in.
Not having followed the flock to the stage musical (what I've heard of the score convinced me that it would be a bad idea), my only previous brush with "Les Miserables" was the 1935 film version. About all I retain of that is the smudged, foggy atmosphere and the looming threat that Charles Laughton's Inspector Javert imposed on the sluggish picture every time he showed up. I also recall a musty, high-minded sermonizing tone that's come back to me every time I've considered picking up the novel. I know that's unfair to Hugo, but something of the same improving moral atmosphere hangs over August's film. Surely there's more shading to the Hugo novel than the bone-dry melodrama on view here, because as this film presents the story, the obsessive Inspector Javert is only half of the problem. The other half is the hero, Jean Valjean.
Valjean, a man once convicted of stealing a loaf of bread, has to hide his past to rebuild a decent life, but Javert is determined to expose him. The only way this story can have any complexity is if Valjean is as blinkered as Javert, if his determination to be a moral man is so unyielding that he's impervious to the destruction it sows. August and screenwriter Rafael Yglesias present "Les Miserables" as morally black and white, a decades-long (and I do mean decades) contest between good and evil. Valjean eventually becomes a mayor and factory owner, benevolent and solicitous of his employees' well-being. But his desire to protect them from bad influences leads him to fire one of his workers, Fantine (Uma Thurman, awash in sweat and blood and sputum as if doing penance for being so radiant in other films) when he discovers she has an illegitimate daughter. She's reduced to working as a whore, and Valjean makes amends by providing for her care when she's sick and beaten. But when he discovers that another man thought to be Valjean faces life imprisonment, he steps in and reveals his true identity. It's a selfless act, but a thoughtless one because it prevents Fantine from being reunited with her daughter on her deathbed. Later, when Valjean has a chance to dispose of Javert, he instead shows him mercy, and clearly we're meant to view this as the act of a man too good to resort to an expedient execution. But we've seen the villainy that Javert spreads (and continues to spread after Valjean lets him go), and so Valjean's mercy just looks like the act of a man too pure to let himself be tainted by a bad act that will bring good results.
The movie's whole virtuous conception of Jean Valjean sticks in my craw. He's haunted and hunted, but he reeks of a reasoned, noble superiority that's a pretty sterile quality in the hero of an epic. And it doesn't help that, as in most of his recent work, Liam Neeson looks as if acting has become a chore for him. Still, Neeson's stricken, wet-eyed torment is a lot easier to take than Geoffrey Rush's Javert, a snarling hangdog martinet. Is it my imagination or does Rush's face seem to get longer as the movie goes on? It appears to be dripping down beneath his shoulder blades like one of Dali's watches. This is one of those performances that make it easy to predict how the actor is going to look in the Mad magazine parody of the movie.
Rush is trying to do something here. He's attempting to play Javert -- the inspector with the inhuman, unyielding dedication to the law -- as a sort of protofascist Uriah Heep, both ruthless and servile, but he sneers and snaps and plots like a Belasco villain. There's none of the dark, repressed sexuality that Laughton brought to the role. Rush is talented, but he's been acclaimed as a major actor without having done anything to earn it. His performance in "Shine" was a sustained impersonation; he didn't go nearly as deep as Noah Taylor, who played Helfgott as a young man, did. There are no depths or surprises here either. Scenery chewing with a rationale behind it is still scenery chewing.
At 2 hours and 20 minutes "Les Miserables" is an unholy slog. It's the sort of movie where, when a title pops up saying, "Ten Years Later," you sink down in your seat certain it's going to be 20 before you get the hell out of there. Everything about it is standard-issue movie epic, from the English accents most of the cast affect to the period sets and costumes that never, for a frame, make you believe you're watching another era. As Fantine's daughter Cosette, Danes never stops working, but her commitment only underscores how phony the whole enterprise is. Actors as believable as Danes can often be the saving grace of bad movies, and Danes has shown herself believable in both period pictures ("Little Women") and stylized ones ("William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet"). But "Les Miserables" is in the tradition of vellum-bound unbelievability. While the emotions that Danes projects from moment to moment feel real, the whole conception of the pure-hearted Cosette is contrived.
The best acting in the movie is from Peter Vaughan as the bishop whose act of generosity turns the embittered Valjean around. Vaughan (he was Anthony Hopkins' elderly butler father in "The Remains of the Day") brings some pacing and bite to his lines. You don't hold it against the bishop that Valjean takes his admonition to become a changed man too much to heart. But the movie has it wrong: With Valjean's humorless dedication to work, duty, God, sobriety and chastity, it's not Javert he should be up against, it's W.C. Fields.