If you’re waiting for Anne Hathaway to come out and sing “I Dreamed a Dream,” then you’re watching the wrong film. This version of the Victor Hugo classic is a three-hour epic created in 1982 for French television.
Sadly, the U.S. DVD release is missing a half-hour from the original broadcast, and it also kept the French-language soundtrack at home. Instead, the production is saddled with an awkwardly dubbed soundtrack populated by American actors that sound like they were cold-reading their lines. The result is a weird audio-visual sensation that effectively dilutes whatever dramatic performances were generated by a sprawling ensemble led by veteran French cinema icon Lino Ventura as Jean Valjean. Ventura certainly looks right for the role of the beleaguered yet indefatigable ex-convict, and Michel Bouquet projects the right degree of self-righteous malevolence as Valjean’s brutal persecutor, Inspector Javert.
Director Robert Hossein manages to keep the action moving at a crisp pace while staying relatively faithful to Hugo’s elaborate storyline, and the sequence involving the storming of the barricades is imaginatively staged. One could find fault with some wobbly elements of the production design: most of the ragged clothing on the poverty-stricken characters looks brand new rather than worn to the fraying point, while carefully applied smudges of soot on the photogenic cast’s faces barely suggest a life in grime.
Nonetheless, this is an intriguing example of French television production (which is mostly unknown to American viewers). Maybe someday the original uncut, French-language version will cross the Atlantic and replace this unfortunately mutilated release.