Directed in 2000 by Josée Dayan, who had previously made the brilliant French mini series of The Count Of Monte Cristo, also starring Gerard Depardieu, this take on Victor Hugo's classic novel has an unusual history. Two versions were made - a six hour series for French TV (in French, of course) and a three hour version in English. Only the latter is on this DVD release, which is a terrible missed opportunity - why not include the French version, with subtitles, to give the viewer a fascinating chance to compare them?

As it is, however, the version we get features an almost entirely French cast, speaking in heavily-accented English. Now, it's no reflection on their talent or language skills to say that this is somewhat distracting. You can't help but wonder why they don't just revert to their natural tongue (the answer is that the English version was made for an American TV channel, where they don't hold with them pesky subtitles, even for a prestige production like this).

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That issue aside, this is a quality mini-series, with splendid performances, a very authentic looking portrayal of the period and a mostly faithful adaptation of the book. It's abruptly abbreviated in parts - Marius's part of the story gets particular short shrift - with the longer version presumably explaining more. But the basic tragedy is clear, if rushed.

Gerard Depardieu is as reliable as ever as Jean Valjean, the ex-convict who reforms but finds that his past haunts him everywhere he goes, chiefly in the person of unforgiving policeman Javert. A habitual thief, the kindness of a bishop he meets on release from prison turns Valjean into a new man who rises to become a businessman and mayor. Yet, when another is wrongly arrested in his name, it is his new responsibility that makes him own up, abandoning all he has built.

And that, too, makes him go on the run with orphan Cosette, daughter of an unfortunate poor woman he has vowed to protect. They find sanctuary for a time, but never security. Virginie Ledoyen is a beautiful, if slightly simpering, Cosette and the French Revolution scenes, though they seem to come out of nowhere, are dramatically staged.

Unfortunately, one major part of the series doesn't quite work. John Malkovich's delivery is as flat as if it weren't HIS native language, playing Javert as a dead-eyed, passionless cipher. While it's preferable to the eye-rolling villain some versions of the tale have made him, he falls some way short of menacing into simply inscrutable. You never get a sense of why he pursues Jean Valjean so thoroughly.

The production's lavish attention to detail in its recreation of the poverty and luxury of the time shows up crisply on this DVD, which is a visual feast. It's just unfortunate that the same attention to detail isn't shown elsewhere: not only in the omission of the French version, but in the absence of any special features or extras whatsoever.

Definitely worth watching as a well-made adaptation in itself, but a disappointing DVD release.

Reviewed on: 29 Sep 2004
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Les Miserables packshot
Rise and fall of ex-housebreaker who becomes mayor during the period of the French revolution.
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Director: Josee Dayan

Writer: Didier Decoin, based on the novel by Victor Hugo

Starring: Gerard Depardieu, Christian Clavier, John Malkovich, Virginie Ledoyen, Enrico Lo Verso, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Asia Argento

Year: 2000

Runtime: 172 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: France


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