May 11, 1998 12:00 PM

Liam Neeson, Claire Danes, Uma Thurman, Geoffrey Rush

Appropriately enough, the French word for bread is pain. Stealing a single loaf of it causes no end of pain for Jean Valjean, the hero of Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s 1862 epic novel. After serving 19 years in jail following the theft, Valjean (Neeson) successfully remakes his life only to find himself once again pursued by the overzealous Inspector Javert (Rush), a law officer who does not believe in reform or redemption.

This latest all-talking version of Misérables—don’t go expecting the Broadway musical—is a severely pared-down retelling. It concentrates on the extended deadly cat-and-mouse game between Valjean and Javert at the expense of Valjean’s relationships with a doomed prostitute (Thurman) and her daughter (Danes). Although Neeson and Rush do worthy work, director Bille August seems leery of letting the innate romanticism of the material sweep him and the film away. Instead, we get a respectful movie, but one that goes only as far as the Cliffs Notes, never over the cliff, (PG-13)

Bottom Line: Won’t knock your chapeau off

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