When dealing with a source material that's been adapted so frequently into film, it's extremely difficult not to compare and contrast any new effort with what's gone before. Taken on its own merits, however, this version of the Victor Hugo classic is a solid and entertaining adaptation, if too cold and austere. Liam Neeson is a thoroughly credible Valjean, especially during the opening sequences when the protagonist is still a criminal. With his looming physicality, the actor pulls off a palpable sense of threat that makes accepting him as a public menace that much easier. Neeson's interpretation of the role is a reminder of how many of the actors who have filled Valjean's shoes in the past have portrayed him as a tragic victim of unavoidable circumstance so that his later transformation seems more believable (and their own personas remain heroically intact). Here, the star goes for a sense of his character as a genuine thief, and it's a small but important thrill. If his later, reformed Valjean is too brittle and removed, it's understandable in contrast to his earlier incarnation. It also makes way for the searing performance of Geoffrey Rush as Javert, one of the finer depictions of the role. Rush brings to life the ramrod steel of his villain's outer shell, but manages at all turns to remain sympathetic. This is no small feat in a part that could easily be played by someone less subtle as a teeth-gnashing demon. Elements such as music, costuming, set design, and location are first rate, combining with the two lead performances to make a mostly successful production. Les Miserables (1998) weakens when the female characters are onscreen. Neither the tragic scenes involving the death of Fantine (Uma Thurman) nor the burgeoning romance of Cosette (Claire Danes) with a political dissident ever really become emotionally engaging. It looks fantastic and its male leads are doing some of their best work, but Les Miserables (1998) doesn't evoke the feelings that it should. That's a flaw in such a sweeping, ardent tale.