Masters Of Cinema #106 - Les Misérables - Blu-ray Review

'Dedicating close to a quarter of a day to watching a movie is undoubtedly something of an undertaking, even before you consider whether or not it's an experience you will enjoy'.

With a running time of five hours, Raymond Bernard's 1934 adaptation of Les Misérables is at the very least notable for being the most complete film version of Victor Hugo's epic novel. In terms of length, watching Bernard's film is the equivalent of viewing Pulp Fiction twice back to back, or binge-watching the entire first season of The Walking Dead. Dedicating close to a quarter of a day to watching a movie is undoubtedly something of an undertaking, even before you consider whether or not it's an experience you will enjoy.

Upon its release eighty years ago, Les Misérables was in fact distributed as three separate films - one of two hours, and two of ninety minutes each - one week after another. The Masters Of Cinema release presents the whole film as such, making it easier to split your viewing of all three hundred minutes of Bernard's opus over a few sittings should you so wish. That said, taking in the entire epic story in one go does allow the complex narrative to flow together well as a whole. Bernard's adaptation is the first telling of Hugo's novel I have ever experienced - either on screen, stage or page - and, whilst there are still edits made by the director, this rarely feels like a grand tale being brutally chopped down or rushed through. It's clear that Bernard has an understanding of the scale and thematic depth of Hugo's story, an appreciation which permeates his adaptation throughout.

The assembled cast are also consistently strong, with even those playing relatively minor characters putting in memorable performances. The highest accolades here must go to Harry Baur and Charles Vanel, both of whom deliver unwaveringly excellent turns at the centre of Bernard's film as Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert respectively. Vanel's creation of the obsessive Javert is superb, allowing the character to develop subtly over the course of the story. However, it is Baur's comprehensive inhabitance of Valjean in every scene, authentically transforming himself to depict the different stages of the ex-convict's life, that gives Bernard the consistent and compelling core he needs to build his intricate and monumental film around.

Les Misérables is undeniably at its best when Bernard has allowed the momentum to really get going, with the second and third parts of his film arguably the most successful for this very reason. The middle section focuses largely on Valjean's dealings with the villainous Thénardiers (Charles Dullin and Marguerite Moreno) with the pace and tension building pleasingly after a somewhat slower opening; the final section too spends a good hour on a captivating and vibrant presentation of revolutionaries and the military clashing on the streets of Paris. The pace suddenly slows again a little too much during the final half an hour, but not enough to undo Bernard's sterling work that has preceded it. It's pacing that ultimately makes the opening two hour section the relative weak link, taking too long to get going and providing too few stand-out moments across its running time.

In the end, however, the most important question is this: does Bernard's film justify its mammoth running time? Pleasingly, the answer overall has to be that it does. It's true that what issues there are to be found here are linked to the film's substantial length, but then so are many of the film's strengths as both an epic piece of cinema and a successful adaptation of Hugo's novel. Watching Bernard's version of Les Misérables is always going to be a commitment, but it is to a considerable degree a worthwhile one.





Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.

Les Misérables was released in the UK on Monday 8th December 2014

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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