Les Miserables Review

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A life of tragedy, struggle and triumph is depicted from 1900 to the late 1940s.


Veteran French filmmaker Claude Lelouch has regularly been accused of making technically adept, emotionally arid upper middle-class drama. With what is arguably his masterpiece, an ambitious, absorbing, three hour epic reworking of Victor Hugo's great novel, Lelouch graces the heart as well the eye.

A Lelouch favourite, and to some extent his screen alter ego, Belmondo joins him again to play illiterate boxer Henri Fortin, whose life of tragedy, struggle and triumph is depicted from 1900 to the late 1940s. The time span covers the sweep of history across France from an aristocratic New Year's Eve ball in Paris to D-Day on the Normandy coast in sensationally vivid set-pieces. Early in childhood Fortin is introduced to the wonder of cinema, captivated by a silent film of Les Misérables and ever after identifies himself with the hero, Jean Valjean.

The core sections of Lelouch's screenplay take place during the Nazi occupation, when Fortin befriends a Jewish family in flight. He is rewarded by their reading aloud to him the Hugo novel, he all the while visualising the circumstances and people of his own difficult life superimposed on Valjean's. En route he discovers his own worth, compassion and universal truths of humanity.

Lelouch - whose A Man And A Woman turned English-speaking audiences onto French cinema with its breakthrough success back in 1986 - utilises an extraordinary French cast - including Jean Marais and Micheline Presle - for scenes that incorporate charm, horror, heroism and cruelty.

Ultimately this film insists that friendship and hope are what give life meaning, purpose and dignity. Very French, very rich and quite wonderful.