LES MISERABLES Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Michel Boujenah, Alessandra Martines, Anni Giradot. Directed by Claude Lelouch. In French, with English and Chinese subtitles. Category IIA. Opens Thursday at Cine-Art. A brilliant, lavish drama inspired by Victor Hugo's novel of the same name, Les Miserables is closer to its source in spirit than in content. Director Calude Lelouch has set the film in the 20th century rather than the 18th. But the novel is a source of comfort and revelation to film's leading characters, who refer directly to the work and who see parallels with Hugo's characters in their own lives. So instead of revolutionary France, it is a tale of hardship and humanity in Vichy France - ruled by Marshal Petain under the iron grip of the Nazis. The film is an easy watch for people who have never read the book, but those who have will undoubtedly get much more from its many literary references. Les Miserables begins at a great ball to celebrate the passing of the 19th century. A chauffeur, Henri Fortin, is wrongly imprisoned for murder, and makes numerous attempts to escape. But this is merely a prelude which sets the theme of good people living hard lives. The main story begins a little later, when his son - a former boxing champion, also named Henri - helps a Jewish family to flee Nazi-occupied France. As Henri tries to get them safely to the Swiss border, the family, Andre and Elise Ziman and their daughter Salome, introduce the illiterate Henri to Hugo's Les Miserables. The rough-hewn figure immediately recognises himself in two of the characters, and also sees how the suffering described in the novel is mirrored over a century later. The story follows Henri's travails as a thief, resistance leader and restaurateur, while tracking the lives of the Jewish family which take increasingly horror-filled turns under the Nazis. Henri, the Valjean of the story, is a man we grow to love. He's a warm-hearted, practical and honest - an oak who can weather all storms. The Jewish couple, too, face life with as much dignity as the situation allows; it's a film which celebrates the power of the human spirit in the face of suffering. Lelouch's decision to set the film in a more contemporary period was based on his own first experience. The director himself fled occupied France as a child, and his mother told him stories from Les Miserables to comfort him at night. 'I tried to put myself in the shoes of a Victor Hugo who would have been born at the same time as the moving picture,' says Lelouch. 'Someone who, inspired by the miseries of the 20th century, would have told the story of Valjean, Thenardier, Javert, Cosette and the others, in order to affirm, once again, that the human being is the more beautiful of spectacles, even when life offers him a bad role.' Indeed, Lelouch's approach simply highlights the novel's timeless theme. As one of the characters quotes (presumably from Hugo): 'There are two or three stories that are repeated over and over again throughout history.' Although the story has an epic sweep, it focuses squarely on the hard-pressed individuals, never seeking to elucidate on anything outside their experience. It's told in chronological fashion, occasionally flipping back to the time of the original novel for a quick episode from the text. It's a successful format, which renders chunks of history easily digestible. Jean-Paul Belmondo puts in a great performance as Henri Fortin. He is probably still best known for his role in Godard's classic Breathless back in 1959. Here Belmondo shows the grace and subtlety that have made him a legend in France. Supporting performances are good all round, with the characters weaving in and out of Henri's life to provide a broad picture of the times. The actors are given some lavish sets to work on. The opening ballroom scene features a splendid period set and sparkling costumes, realised with swooping crane and dolly shots. The production used 52 sets and 50 locations in all. Some, such as a huge outdoor recreation of a World War I hospital, are on screen for only a matter of minutes. The characterisation and script are so strong, however, the magnificent sets never put them in the shade. Literate and visually engrossing, Les Miserables is a pleasure to watch.