Monday, 7 November 2011

Les Miserables (1978)

Due to a trailer that I had seen I was fully expecting this made-for-TV film to have cheesy lines, poor writing, bad acting and little-to-no respect for Victor Hugo's book. However, I was quite surprised. Yes, there are a couple of cheesy lines and some of the actors are... erm ... not great. But this film is definitely not as bad as the 1998 version of Les Miserables. This film isn't up-to-par but it's by no means horrible and there were even moments that I genuinely enjoyed. Some of the characters in this movie were done quite well. The actor playing the Bishop was good (despite his rather dodgy accent) as well as the actor who played Fauchlevant. The actors playing the Thenardiers were quite good too (even though they're only on screen for about 5 minutes). The best actor in this version though - by quite some distance - is Anthony Perkins.

Perkins is most famous for playing Norman Bates in Psycho and he plays Javert in this film. Book purists may argue that he's a bit too attractive and effeminate-looking to play Javert as he's written in the book (and back in the 1950s and 60s Perkins was an attractive man). But Perkins really gets into the part and does an absolutely superb job playing the character! For me Perkins' acting is right up there with Philip Quast's acting in the 10th anniversary concert of the musical. He's definitely the best thing about this adaptation and gives a vastly superior performance than Geoffrey Rush did in the 1998 movie. Perkins' Javert shows emotions other than anger and doesn't seem like an all-round bad guy. When Fantine dies you see a flicker of genuine shock and guilt on his face before he quickly reverts back to being all stern and cold again. Perkins' acting is also a lot more subtle than Rush's was and I especially love his acting in his final scene with Jean Valjean in the sewers. In all fairness to Geoffrey Rush I do think he's a great actor and he have would have probably been quite good in the 1998 movie if the screenwriters had actually liked his character!

This particular movie opens with Jean Valjean stealing a (giant!) loaf of bread before getting thrown into Toulon prison. He meets Javert there and exchanges many prolonged glances with him where they gaze into each other's eyes (this is unintentionally amusing!) In fact the script actually devotes quite a bit of time to Valjean's 19 years in prison and we do get lots of character-building scenes that show Valjean becoming increasingly bitter and angry over time. I quite liked this. Jean Valjean then leaves the prison but he doesn't get granted parole like he does in the book. This time he escapes from prison by falling from a rope after saving another prisoner. Well, this is how Valjean got out of prison the second time around I suppose.

Valjean then meets the Bishop, becomes mayor of Montreil-sur-Mer (only it's called Monteis sur Monteis for some bizarre reason) and meets Fantine. Now up until this point I had (much to my surprise) been enjoying this movie but I was very disappointed with how they handled Fantine's character. She gets barely any backstory and is only on screen for a few minutes before she dies. If I'd gone into this movie as a complete newcomer, and knew nothing about the story beforehand, then I think I would have assumed that Fantine was just some small, throwaway character whose only purpose was to give birth to Cosette. But an entire volume is named after her in Hugo's book! I don't think Fantine's name is even mentioned in this version! Also, the character seems borderline insane. She looks and talks like Gollum! Speaking of Lord of the Rings, Ian Holm, who plays Thenardier in this version, went on to play Bilbo Baggins in the Peter Jackson movies. Also, the actor who plays Marius in this version (Christopher Guard) did the voice of Frodo in the Ralph Bakshi version.

After Fantine's death, Valjean goes on the run like in the book. He takes Cosette away from the Thenardiers and evades Javert by hiding out in the convent for a number of years. We even get the grave switching scene. At this point the film has been running for 90 minutes and has been (on the whole) a reasonably accurate adaptation of Hugo's book. Unfortunetly there's just half an hour left to go and the film-makers then attempt to squeeze the rest of the book to fit into this 30 minute period. As a result none of the revolutionary students are even named except for Marius and Enjolras. Thankfully though this version doesn't attempt to combine Marius and Enjolras' characters together like the 1998 version did. We don't get the Patron-Minette in this film and Eponine isn't in it either (Boo!) We do get Gavroche in this movie but he's only in it long enough to be annoying and die. Funnily enough we also get Marius's grandfather Monsieur Gillenormand.

Now we're coming up to the very end of the movie. Javert jumps into the Seine (with a pretty cool somersault) and Marius and Cosette get married like in the book. Jean Valjean doesn't die though and the film ends with him happily wandering around a churchyard after the wedding. The End.

My overall opinion of this film is that it isn't too bad. Yes, the final 30 minutes are pretty bad and I hated what they did to Fantine. However, when you compare it to the 1998 version it suddenly looks quite decent! My rating is 3/5 (an extra star for Anthony Perkins' performance). If you only see this film for just one reason then it should be to watch Perkins as Javert.


Mizzie-Me said...

My friend has a 1950s movie version of Les Mis, and I've been thinking that I should do it on my blog just for everyone's general amusement – that is just the most pointless adaptation ever, and that's really something, considering how weird Les Mis films (and the French miniseries) usually are. The Marius of this 1950s version is even more terrible than the French miniseries one, can you believe it?

Hannah said...

*Gasp* Really?! Even worse than French miniseries Marius?! Yes, you really should do a review! I'm not going to believe you until you go into more depth! ;)