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Victor Hugo's classic 1862 novel Les Misérables isn't going to leave the public consciousness anytime soon; a quick search of IMDb will fetch you more adaptations then you could ever hope to sit through and there’s no ignoring the enduring popularity of the west end musical by Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Herber Kretzmer.

Fox television decided to join in the fun back in 2000, with a dual project starring identical casts. The outcome was a six hour French version and a three hour English version. The latter has made its way to DVD...

Les Misérables
Film
It is the early Nineteenth century and convict Jean Valjean (Gerard Depardieu) is released on parole after nineteen years of confinement. After occasionally straying back into his old criminal ways, Valjean becomes determined to start afresh and turn his life around. His determination wins through and, after breaking his parole, he rises from factory worker to mayor in the town of Montreuil-Sur-Mer.

However, Valjean's old prison officer, Javert (John Malkovich), is in town and recognises the convict. When Valjean is forced to reveal his identity, Javert issues a warrant for his arrest. Valjean is determined to avoid the police so that he can honour a promise that he made to a dying women; he must rescue her young daughter from the clutches of her evil foster parents. And so begins a cat and mouse game as Javert pursues Valjean across the country.  

Presented in two ninety minute episodes, the story spans seventeen years and deals with many themes including redemption and love. Complicated relationships and conflicting causes are very much the order of the day, set against turbulent times in France's history.  

There's no denying that Les Misérables is a gripping story and any director would be hard-pressed to ever make it unwatchable. However, the fact that it's a pretty epic tale means that it must hold our interest for a considerable amount of time and the pedestrian direction of Dayan is barely up to scratch. Only occasionally are we presented with a dynamic shot that grips our attention and the flaccid editing does not assist matters. Another quibble is that, despite flashing forward by many years at random intervals, it's up to the hairpieces—rather than more crucial aspects—to inform the audience that the narrative has jumped ahead. Even Hollywood’s favoured caption is ignored. Indeed, this is a film that cannot escape its TV-movie roots. Despite high-profile actors filling the main parts, the lesser roles are populated by distinctly lesser actors. While this isn’t a problem for much of the runtime, the poorly disguised American accents in the later scenes detract from the reality of the piece.

Depardieu is fine in the central role of Valjean, although fans of Malkovich may be surprised by his restrained performance. While he undoubtedly makes a sinister bad-guy, he's perhaps too stolid to live long in the memory and seems too concerned to ground Javert in reality to make the character entertaining. Meanwhile, those admirers of Virginie Ledoyen should be warned that she doesn't appear until the final moments of episode one.

Les Misérables
It's therefore a problem that episode two is where things take a turn for the worse. Hugo's original novel has its fair share of problems and they're transferred to the screen. Chief among these is that, at around the half-way mark of both the story and this adaptation, things seem to be going well for our heroes and a happy ending seems imminent. Episode one ends on a reasonably light note and there’s not a great deal to draw you in for the next ninety minutes. A slight restructure could have probably solved these problems quite easily.

These misgivings should not detract those with a genuine interest in this production. It's a solid, if unremarkable, adaptation that tells Hugo's story in uncomplicated fashion. Even when the production or acting does not meet the viewer’s demands, the story—by means of a strong screenplay—shines through with an ever twisting narrative. While there are more accessible versions out there, including the 1998 movie starring Liam Neeson and Uma Thurman, this is a more than adequate introduction to a classic novel.

Video
A lack of clarity in the darkened scenes, of which there are many, mean that it's occasionally hard to make out the characters from the scenery. Add that problem with a fair amount of visible grain and you are left with unexceptional picture quality. Forgivable perhaps due to its TV-movie origins, but this disc wont win any awards for presentation.

Audio
Presented with a 2.0 Dolby Digital soundtrack, Les Misérables sounds reasonable when pumped through the two front speakers. Although dialogue and sound effects occasionally fight for dominance in the film's more frantic moments, this is passable audio for an undemanding feature.

Extras
Not a sausage. Zut alors!

Les Misérables
Overall
This is a curiosity that will find a fair amount of appreciation from fans of the novel. While this disc is a missed opportunity, Les Misérables has more drama and intrigue than most Hollywood releases. The disc is sorely lacking extras which could have explored many aspects of the making of this production, but the fairly lengthy runtime ensures that this is a value purchase.


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