BLU-RAY REVIEW: LES MISERABLES (1934) / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: RAYMOND BERNARD / SCREENPLAY: RAYMOND BERNARD, ANDRE LANG / STARRING: HARRY BAUR, CHARLES VANEL, FLORELLE, PAUL AZAIS, JOSSELINE GAEL / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Newly restored in 4K at its original length by Pathé, the 1934 version of Victor Hugo’s immortal novel, Les Misérables, was the most thorough of all film adaptations and Raymond Bernard is one of the more overlooked filmmakers of the early French cinema. Originally released as three separate feature-length chapters during its release, Bernard's film recounts the stories of the ex-convict Jean Valjean (Baur), hounded by the overbearing Inspector Javert (Vanel), the virtuous Fantine (Florelle), who sells herself into prostitution for the welfare of her young daughter Cosette (Gael), and of intersections of these threads, which all culminates with the June 1832 French Rebellion.
There have been so many different versions of Les Misérables throughout the years, and the high watermark, regardless of what anyone else thinks, is the 2012 musical version (directed by Tom Hooper) as it was a huge, ambitious, sweeping epic that produced a tidal wave of tears (even though Russell Crowe sounded like a close relative of Pierce Brosnan). But what the musical version did was that it took Hugo’s novel and condensed it for the screen in a strong and coherent form.
In the case of this version, even though it is beautifully handled and well-performed, having the film at over four hours to try and translate nearly every page of the book onto the screen is somewhat problematic. One of the things about great adaptations of books is the way in which filmmakers take a great text and wrestle it down to the form of one movie. In the case of this, like Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, having it at great length only makes it somewhat baggy as a result.
Despite the bagginess, it still deals with deep thematic themes and ideas, like redemption, unrequited romance, and the lengths of motherhood. Fantine is still the strongest character as she’s clearly an archetype for self-abnegation and devoted motherhood, and her tragic end still produces eye-watering results. Jean Valjean here is represented as an enormous bear-like mountain of a man, but like in the Beauty and the Beast tale, beneath that gruff exterior is a gentle-natured human being, and Harry Baur brilliantly embodies that.
Ultimately, Raymond Bernard’s Les Misérables is a solidly mounted, yet baggy, affair that is brilliantly performed and stylishly shot, but yet it loses the tight and constrained narrative of its musical counterpart.
Special Features: 40-page booklet / Further extras to be confirmed
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