Sunday, September 4, 2016

Les Miserables (1978) Review:

When it comes to all things France related, there aren't too many mainstream stories that have been told and retold again in American cinema. The French Revolution, parts of World War II and even fantasy stories like Disney's Beauty and the Beast (1991) all take place in France. But from as it seems, the most popular of these French stories belong to Victor Hugo's novel of the same name Les Miserables. So far this book has had five major film adaptations; four of which were feature length movies, while another was a mini-series. The two latest adaptations were theatrically released while the second in line was a TV movie release. The difference in years between releases may be a long period (two decades), but the story wasn't drastically varied. The only noticeable change in presentation is having the knowledge of its production date. Knowing it was produced in the late 1970s gives it a much more dated viewing experience. Nonetheless, the story is worth the time to see.

"I'm just a woodcutter...."
As the title would suggest, the plot to this movie is about Les Miserables or "the miserables", "the poor ones" etc. Living in France during 1796, a broke innocent woodcutter named Jean Valjean (Richard Jordan) steals a loaf of bread in order to feed his sister and her children. Not long after being caught by the authorities, Valjean is sent to Toulon to carry out his five-year sentence. In charge of the Toulon camp is the heavy handed Javert (Anthony Perkins), who ends up becoming acquainted with Valjean very quickly and their rivalry percolates into the next thirty years. With time passing before his eyes, Valjean becomes bitter against humanity but realizes his error when a bishop (Claude Dauphin) displays an act of kindness towards him. Determined to live every moment by caring for others, Valjean becomes utterly the opposite of what he once was. Headed by Glenn Jordan (a veteran TV Movie director) and written by John Gay, this film looks dated but still has a significant amount of storytelling.

The development of Jean Valjean is intriguing enough to see play out when looking at his humble beginnings. Over time, Valjean becomes a grizzled man who finds himself being more of an early Hudini than a woodcutter. Even at an elderly age, somehow Valjean finds a way of getting around; that's impressive. Richard Jordan as Valjean doesn't disappoint either. Jordan is one those serious actors who always play his role like it were his own. Along his travels he adopts a widow's daughter named Cosette (Caroline Langrishe) and raises her as his own. Angela Pleasence, the daughter of Donald Pleasence, plays the widow. The part that Cosette plays as to her stepfather isn't as prominent, but she does bring about some compelling situations between Valjean and the ever-vigilant Javert. Speaking of which, Anthony Perkins as Javert is credible too. Although he stands like a giant mast, Perkins can be very intimidating as the lead inspector. He really makes things run like clockwork. By far the best chemistry is seen between Perkins and Jordan.

The odd thing is the relationship that Javert and Valjean have reminisced to that of Batman and The Joker from Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008). Except this time, the roles and personalities are switched. Valjean is the miscreant who makes Javert's world a chaos to deal with. Yet Valjean's ideals are more unpretentious than say The Joker's. Javert on the other hand resembles that of Batman, wanting order and will stop at nothing to catch Valjean. The parallels are undeniable. It is a little baffling though to see actors playing French characters and not sounding anywhere close to the accent. Saying monsieur doesn't make you entirely French. The other problem that arises is the forced love interest between Cosette and a rebel named Marius (Christopher Guard). All these two characters do is stare at each other once or twice and they both know they're in love. It's certain that most audiences will not buy into this notion and completely believe that. Rarely do individuals know each other are meant to be by just staring.

Anthony Perkins as Javert
When it comes to visuals, the scenery isn't always clear. However, since this took place way before CGI was implemented into film, all props were undoubtedly physical objects. That covers sets and various historical pieces of the time. A lot of the old structures look appropriate taking the setting into account. The cinematography was shot by Jean Tournier, a native Frenchman (gasp!). Like stated before, although there are some darker than normal scenes, the scenes do cover enough to have the viewer comprehend the surroundings of the main leads. That also means even without a widescreen view. The musical score composed by Allyn Ferguson is another memorable element. Sadly there was no official release of the music but the theme is quite endearing. Relying mostly on the strings, Ferguson's main theme to this adaptation consistently appears whenever Valjean is on screen pointing out that the story revolves around him. Surprisingly, that's all the music needed. It would've been nice to have other cues but it's fine anyway.

The fact that the actors weren't directed to have a more authentic French accents and the main character's step daughter having a forced love interest are the only true crimes to this book adaptation. The actors, music, camerawork and especially the writing make this a special story to witness.

Points Earned --> 7:10

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