Jean Valjean escapes from prison and builds a new life but struggles to keep his true identity secret from his enemies.
When Victor Hugo first published the novel of Les Miserables, he was set on opening readers' eyes to the injustices inherent in their society as well as giving them a damn good yarn. Over a century later, Bille August's challenge is to make something new from a familiar tale, which remains true to the author's vision while being pertinent to a 20th century cinema audience.
So what have we got? The story of Jean Valjean (Neeson) who, having escaped from prison after 19 years' hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread, gets back on the right path thanks to the goodness of another (Peter Vaughan). Ten years pass, and Valjean, now a successful businessman and the respected mayor in his chosen town, is recognised by a prison guard-turned-police inspector Javert (Rush) who determines to bring him to justice.
Valjean flees, taking with him Cosette, the young daughter of Fantine (Thurman) - whose death was indirectly his fault and with whom he had fallen in love. Nine years later, "father and daughter" are living happily in Paris, when again the police inspector gets on their trail. Now, though, there's the added complication of Cosette (Danes) falling for a young revolutionary (Hans Matheson).
As one would expect from a modern adaptation of a classic novel, this displays a wealth of beautifully shot locations, a stirring score (by Basil Poledouris) to whiz the narrative across the miles and through the decades, and classy cameos from some familiar faces (mostly from Brit TV drama). However, the leads struggle valiantly to find depth and passion in virtually dimension-free characterisation, and there is little sense of the social injustices which must be the crux of the story.
The result is disappointingly unremarkable. And why does everyone speak with impeccable English accents except for the comedy policeman (French) and the halfwit (Scottish)?