Blu-ray Review: ‘Les Misérables’

It’s extremely fitting that after Tom Hooper’s star-studded version of Les Misérables (2012) has exited stage-left that Raymond Bernard original 1934 adaptation of Victor Hugo’s timeless novel should re-appear fully restored. The film was released as three separate features in 1934 but the Pathe-restored Masters of Cinema Blu-ray enables audiences to watch all 300 minutes of the film’s torturous struggle in one go. The narrative of this French classic unfolds in an effortless manner moving from Jean Valjean’s (Harry Baur) release from prison and the orphan Fantine’s (Florelle) carefree days, to Valjean’s eventual adoption of Fantine’s orphaned daughter Cosette (Josseline Gaël).

Valjean is constantly running from his conscience and his guilt seems to take the form of  Inspector Javert (Charles Vanel), with the lawman’s obsession with recapturing the ex-convict providing the narrative’s milestones. Valjean continues to berate himself for the crimes he committed in the desperate days after his release from prison and it stands to reason that Victor Hugo’s tome of struggle and hardship should be split into three sections, each reflecting the different periods in Valjean’s life. Despite its overall length, this trilogy of films can absolutely be watched in one sitting and joyously there is no singing to provide distraction – unless you count the rebel group of the third instalment and their defiantly throaty last rendition of La Marseillaise atop their barricade in Paris.

The pain of every character is firmly attached to their sleeve, even down to the fearless boy Gavroche (Émile Genevois) and Cosette’s rebel suitor Marius (Jean Servais), whilst Baur skilfully embodies the complex characteristics of Jean Valjean. He is menacing strength personified, his mind constantly turning over the chinks of weakness in his past, visibly unable to put it all behind him. The quality of this recent restoration is remarkable. Throughout the entire film there are perhaps only two scenes that remain slightly unfocused and the reconstructed credits are an asset to the three instalments, whilst the array of special extras are the cherry on top a very fine cake. Along with the undeniably gripping storytelling, the devotion to reflecting the double standards of society and class that underlines Les Misérables continued relevance and it’s very telling that people like Jean Valjean – convicted of trivial crimes – are still treated as criminals incapable of redemption. There is an argument often repeated that film-makers cannot extract every scene of slight importance from literary works, but this original release of Les Misérables is testament to why it should at least be attempted. The devil is always in the detail.

Maryann O’Connor | @Onlyonemaryana