20 January 2013

THE MISERY OF 1978

And now our little tour of English-language Les Misérableses takes us to the point I've been most excited about all along: a 1978 Les Misérables produced by Lord Lew Grade's ITC Entertainment for British and American television, the only feature-length, sound adaptation in the English language I had not previously seen; for it is certainly the most obscure of them - more obscure in America, even, than at least some of the French-language versions - and not readily found in its original, 150-minute form; the only R1 DVD release cuts out nearly half an hour, and while a kindly soul has uploaded a much longer version to YouTube, it still runs short (our old friend PAL speedup might be playing a part in that), and it is a bit plaguey with technical glitches. Between the two of them, the sufficiently dedicated - that is to say, demented - viewer can get an awful lot of the thing screened, and that is how we arrive at our current point. Did you need to know all of that? You did not. But it was an irritation to me to wade through it, and I wanted you all to know how much I worked on your behalf.

As the longest of all English-language versions - the 2012 version of the stage musical has a longer running time, but the bloated ending credits more than account for the difference - one would anticipate that it might therefore be the most faithful, or at least get the most stuff in. And this manages to be true, but mostly by accident: of the two earlier versions, the 1952 film is so far from Victor Hugo's novel that any greater deviation would need to seriously reconsider what it could be titled, and the '78 film is largely content to cover the same ground as the 1935 film, plus some other stuff from the book. And this is what has proven to be the biggest surprise to me: the '52 film being a remake of the '35, it makes sense that they'd share a similar narrative arc, but there's no real reason for the '78 production to copy so much of the shape of the '35 film, but that's exactly what it does. Once again, we begin far from Hugo, with impoverished woodcutter Jean Valjean (Richard Jordan) arrested and tried and convicted for stealing a loaf of bread (we actually see the theft here, which I believe means that this film starts earlier in time than any other cinematic Les Misérables), going to prison and working in one of those limestone quarries so beloved of British TV productions, under the merciless hand of policeman Javert (Anthony Perkins). Valjean escapes (a change! and one not found at that point in the book, either), and eventually finds his way to the kind Bishop Myriel (Claude Dauphin), who purchases his soul for God at the price of some silver plates and candlesticks. Which is, more or less, where the book opens.

I suppose in the interests of drama, it makes sense to introduce the viewer to Jean Valjean in a more "protagonisty" way than the book, which just sort of sidles him in (same with the 1998 film, the musical, and all the French version I can speak to), though it seems odd to solve what isn't really that much of a problem of narrative in such a specific way. At any rate, the telefilm never feels so close to the '35 movie that it smacks of being a rip-off, and as it progresses it starts to develop its own identity very quickly: an identity that brings it much closer to the book than the previous English-language films, and spends considerably more energy on Valjean's attempts to hide from Javert in a convent once things have gone south with his adopted identity as industrialist-mayor M. Madeleine than any other film, which I found personally gratifying, as that's a passage I've always rather enjoyed, however little it actually adds to the story (it is, in that sense, the "Tom Bombadil" scene of Les Misérables).

This is, once again, a Les Misérables that chiefly focuses on the struggle down the decades between Javert and Valjean, spending a singularly disproportionate amount of time on the opening two-fifths of the novel and reducing the student revolutionaries and their barricade to the status of a cameo; but the way that the central conflict is presented is quite different. Betraying its television origins, no doubt, the film is much smaller-scale and interior, and the bulk of its drama comes from watching the two men verbally joust at various points, but especially during Valjan's sojourn at Monteis-sur-Monteis - an invented name changed, inexplicably, from Montreuil-sur-Mer - when Javert skulks along like a bloodhound, knowing that something's wrong with this secretive mayor, but not quite figuring out why.

It might very well be simply that Anthony Perkins is readily the most recognisable face in the main cast (Ian Holm, on the cusp of becoming famous, puts in a one-scene appearance, and John Gielgud gets a highly-billed cameo), and the producers wanted to focus on him; it might be simply that I, as a viewer, focused on him for the same reason. But whatever the case, this adaptation is unusually Javert-centric. Of course, Valjean is still the protagonist, and it's still his character arc that drives the plot; you probably couldn't bend Les Misérables far enough out of shape to change that fact. Yet Javert is given quite a bit of extra prominence, and quite a few scenes where he steals all the attention away from Valjean; if he is typically presented as a constant background threat, here he is much more of an active hunter. And unlike Valjean, who in Jordan's hands is basically the character as Hugo wrote him, Perkins's Javert is quite a bit different than I, for one, had ever imagined him: more twitchy and severe, driven not by a deep reservoir of traditionalism and belief in The Way Things Are (in fact, this Javert outs himself as an atheist), but by a fetish for rules that verges on psychosis. It's a great reinterpretation of the character for the preternaturally nervous-looking Perkins, whose performance is far and away the best thing in the movie: Jordan is stolid and thoughtful and all, but he brings nothing insightful to the role, while Perkins finds something extraordinary to do with every scene, even if it's as little as the way he swallows down a smirk once he things he's figured out Valjean's secret, or the way he spits out words during their final confrontation in the sewers of Paris. In a film that's generally more effective at getting the plot staged than in doing anything to electrify the material and make it immediate and vital, Perkins is the live-wire, whose presence is the reason a fine but unmemorable film becomes a genuinely good Les Misérables.

It is, beyond him, a fine movie and all, certainly not as flaccid as the 20th Century Fox film in 1952. Director Glenn Jordan (no relation to his star) can only do so much to combat the cheapness of a television production, and nothing at all to hide some of the more unmistakably British locations (some scenes, it must be pointed out, were actually shot in France), but there are great moments throughout, and nothing that's ever bad or boring. No, the heavy, dour atmosphere of the 1934 and 1935 Expressionist-influenced adaptations, but the more relaxed realism suits the material fine, even if it makes the misery of the title a little bit less immediately accessible (something already built-in to the film from its narrative shifts, perhaps; certainly the way that Angela Pleasence's Fantine, the book's most significant avatar of underclass suffering, is just crammed in without any real sense to who she is or why we need to care about her). The mixture of medium shots and close-ups is particularly well-judged, keeping us intimately close with the characters while doing just enough to establish the physical spaces in which they exist that we feel the realness of their world and not the staginess.

What Jordan doesn't do is to help the film in its rock last third, when it arrives in 1830s Paris and what was, in prose form, the main bulk of the story picks up: Gay's compression of events (very similar to that of 1935, only with more emphasis on Javert's movements) is fine as far as getting the information put across goes, but it's too hurried to make much of an impact, and the romance between Valjean's adopted daughter Cosette (Caroline Langrishe) and reluctant student revolutionary Marius (Christopher Guard) - much closer to his incarnation in the book than in any other English version of the story - barely registers, owing in part to the pair's generally ineffective performances (Langrishe turns a character who is, at best, hard to like, into an outright spoiled brat and shrew, while Guard hides behind his flimsy little singer-songerwriter beard and looks a bit dazed in all his close-ups), and to how quickly the filmmakers push through it. The romantic subplot, like the rebellion itself, is just an undercard, something put in to fill the gaps in the Valjean/Javert struggle; perhaps for this reason, even though the film is the first English feature to movie beyond Javert's death, it only does so in one brief epilogic scene without dialogue.

The second half, then, is something of a failure, and the old age makeup the two leads are saddled with makes them look silly rather than grave. But enough of the first half, when it's more of a two-hander on pretty sets that are well-shot, the film works: a presentation of the material that probably wouldn't count as anybody's favorite, but still gets across some measure of the intensity of Hugo's book, and has one great performance in Perkins and one solid anchor in Jordan to give it gravity as a drama. It's at best a fine adaptation of the story, but it's only rarely less than that, and even if it's mostly one for the Les Misérables completionists, they're not likely to walk away disappointed.

3 comments:

Vilsal said...

Wait, the guy's real name was Lord Lew Grade?

Tim said...

Well, "Lord" was a title, of course. So it's not the most awesome.

K Wild said...

I saw this one years ago and don't remember much, but I remember really liking it, mainly because of Anthony Perkins.

The Fantine was pretty meh. All I remember was that she spit on Valjean, they actually showed her front teeth removed, and she died the way she did in the book.