Since we can expect Tom Hooper's musical version of 'Les Miserables' in theaters very soon, it comes as no surprise that Billie August's 1998 adaption of Victor Hugo's novel is coming out on Blu-ray. While Hooper's version is enthralling – and by the way, features one of the most heart-breaking scenes in cinema when Anne Hathaway sings "I Dreamed A Dream" – August's retelling of Hugo's immortal tale is much more grounded in reality, human struggle, and triumph. The two films complement each other rather well.
The sweeping epic of the French Revolution is centered around Valjean (Liam Neeson), a lowly convict. We all know the story. Valjean has spent the last 19 years locked away for stealing a bit of bread so he didn't starve. The cruelty of the French judicial system sentenced him to years of hard labor. Once out, Valjean has a hard time leaving behind the hardened man he became in prison. He tries to steal a large amount of silver from a local convent, but is caught. After the convent's priest shows mercy and has Valjean released from custody, the priest challenges the poor waif to make a new life for himself with the money from the silver. And so begins the long, harrowing tale of Valjean and the various folks he'll meet along the way.
Hot on Valjean's heels is Inspector Javert (Geoffrey Rush). These two create one of the great hero-villain combos. Valjean has a bona-fide arch nemesis in Javert. They are continually crossing paths as Valjean attempts to reinvent his own life. Javert merely wants to follow the law as it's directed.
The struggle between the two is one of literature's most memorable battles. The way Neeson and Rush portray their animosity for one another here is downright palpable. Even though Valjean has much more capacity for forgiveness, he knows how dangerous Javert is, but running into him seems preordained.
While there are aspects about the recent musical version that I like more, the facial expressions and raw emotion that comes from them, for example, there is a lot to be said for the way this version of 'Les Miserables' treats its characters and their arcs.
The pinnacle of the 1998 adaption is Liam Neeson in the starring role. He isn't as vulnerable as the man portrayed in the musical. Instead Neeson performs wonderfully as a man who is trying to shed the hardened shell of a man imprisoned for two decades. His progression through the movie is certainly the highlight.
Rush's performance is equally impressive, although the novel adaption doesn't allow us to enter into the mind of Javert like the musical. In the musical Javert is constantly singing to himself, so we understand his inner most thoughts and feelings, which eventually lead to him to his final decision. Here we aren't privy to that type of inside information so all we have to go on is the way Rush slowly, but methodically changes his facial expressions and body language as the film draws to a close. He starts out as this jagged, demanding man of integrity, and ends up a man resigned to a fate that he never once saw coming.
There's a lot to love in August's adaption of Hugo's novel. It relays the passion and spirit of the story. It doesn't have the showmanship of the musical, but it's every bit as effective.
Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a Sony release. They've pressed the movie onto a 50GB Blu-ray Disc, given it an UltraViolet Digital Copy, packaged it in a standard keepcase, and given it region free coding.
The impressive high-def visuals in Sony's 1080p transfer of 'Les Miserables' aren't overly showy by any means. The movie doesn't lavish itself with dramatic sets or landscapes. Most of the time the photography is quite intimate. In that sense you wouldn't be showing off this release in order to showcase what your expensive television can do, but you will be impressed with its presentation nonetheless. That I'm sure of.
The detail is quite extraordinary, especially when considering movies from the '90s seem to be very hit and miss for some reason. Sony has a good track record though, and here they show what they're capable of. They produce a genuine looking presentation full of deep textural and facial details. Everything from the beleaguered wrinkles atop Javert's brow to the individual cobblestones covering the streets of 19th Century Paris, are immaculately reproduced here.
Darker scenes provide amply dark shadows. There's never a moment where you run into drastic crushing or flat looking blacks. Even in the dimly lit scenes, like the moments in the sewer toward the end, harbor crisp lines and rich detail.
Grain is kept intact making the movie retain its cinematic appearance. Overall, the picture is clean and free from any unsightly debris or artifacting. As far as banding and aliasing go, I didn't notice even a smidgen of either. This is a very strong video presentation for a catalog title.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 works in much the same way. Here is a very solid listening experience, one that transports you to a time and a place and keeps you there, that you wouldn't necessarily use for demo purposes. That said, the surround mix here completely immerses you in the world of Valjean.
The surrounds are alive with rich ambient sound. A courtroom scene features clear murmurs and whispers as Valjean reveals his true identity. The harrowing scenes toward the end, as the revolution shifts into gear, are replete with screams of freedom and the shouting of angry men. The fight scenes pack some nice oomph too. LFE becomes a rumbling force once the king's forces wheel their cannons into place and start firing.
Dialogue is always clear. Even whispers are heard clearly. Basil Poledouris' original score fills the soundfield. This lossless mix is an immersive experience. It may not have all the bells and whistles that many other movies have in terms of sound design, but the quality is there. Sony has done a great job here.
There are strengths in the musical that a straight-up novel adaption doesn't have. On the other hand, there are assets in a novel adaption that the musical doesn't quite get right either. What we end up with is a very satisfying retelling of Victor Hugo's immortal work. The performances from the leads are spot-on. With the video and audio being handled with care. Even though the paltry special features offered here skew the overall score, 'Les Miserables' is still recommended.