Victor Hugo’s magnum opus unfolds in this 6-part mini-series
It was only a few years ago that Andrew Davies penned an adaptation of a literary classic in a BBC/PBS/Masterpiece collaboration, bringing Tolstoy’s War and Peace to our screens in an admirably constructed six-part miniseries. Clearly having caught a taste for transforming sprawling tomes to TV, Davies is back to deliver a version of Victor Hugo’s revered (and oft adapted) work, Les Misérables. With an assortment of British talent in front of the camera, the series delves into the politics, philosophy, and plight of individuals in France after the Napoleonic wars have divided the country. This time without the medium of song!
A blockbuster novel for over 150 years comes vividly to life in award-winning screenwriter Andrew Davies’s multi-layered retelling of Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. This enthralling six-episode adaptation (not a musical) stars Dominic West (The Affair, The Wire) as Jean Valjean, the most famous fugitive in literature, David Oyelowo (Selma, Queen of Katwe) stars as his relentless pursuer, Javert, and Lily Collins (Rules Don’t Apply; Love, Rosie) as the tragic seamstress, Fantine; Ellie Bamber (Nocturnal Animals) plays her adolescent daughter, Cosette; Academy Award winner, Olivia Colman (The Favourite) and Adeel Akhtar (Unforgotten) are Cosette’s cruel overseers, the Thénardiers; and Josh O’Connor (The Durrells in Corfu) is the student and reluctant revolutionary Marius, who falls in love with Cosette at first sight.
Twenty years of conflict has divided France. Not just the conflict itself, but the polarizing effect of tradition embodied by the monarchy, and the promise of something new, a revolution led by Napoleon. After his downfall and exile by the British, the country finds itself dealing with the aftermath. People are dealing with loss and poverty, and the old order is looking to reestablish itself. The central trifecta in the tale includes prisoner/fugitive Jean Valjean (Dominic West, McNulty!), Inspector Javert (David Oyelowo) as a persistent thorn in his side, and Lily Collins as the tragic Fantine. Each is mired in this era where the haves are exploiting the have-nots. It’s a look at class systems and perceptions, where the downtrodden are being crushed even more under-heel until they have no choice but to perish or push back.
West’s Valjean is brutish, skittish, raw, and moving. While the reformed version is lacking some dimensionality, it’s still a well realized depiction. Oyelowo’s Javert is villainous with just a hint of the flaws that eventually consume him, capturing the righteousness and retribution well. There’s sparring of this pair throughout the series, and over the years it’s given the indulgence it needs to drive the tale and open windows to what is happening in France. The real soul of the series unsurprisingly stems from Fantine, a woman used by a man belonging to the upper class and cast aside with their new born daughter, forced to try and find a way to survive. Collins elicits a tremendous amount of sympathy, adding a heartbreaking naiveté to her journey. It’s not a coincidence the series begins to falter at the halfway point when her arc completes, further supporting how effective her contribution is.
Supporting the trio are a host of familiar faces including Derek Jacobi, David Bradley, and Donald Sumpter. Those making most use of their screentime are Adeel Akhtar as the truly toady Thénardier, and as you’d expect, (Academy Award winner!) Olivia Colman, who relishes every moment as the equally awful Madame Thénardier. Andrew Davies together with director Tom Shankland do well to build up this world and its characters, patiently weaving things together, fleshing out the historical circumstance, and deploying impressive production standards to craft an authentic period piece. While the series doesn’t pack as much of a emotional wallop due to the lack of musical interludes as used in the 2012 film adaptation, the far lengthier run-time affords a more in depth and nuanced fleshing out of the story. Sure it doesn’t quite stir in the same way, but the narrative certainly flows much better. An old-fashioned piece of storytelling, it’s attentive to the tale rather than the spectacle. As previously mentioned, the strongest emotional resonance feels tied to the presence of Fantine, which means the back half of the series trudges its way to a revolutionary finale that feels a little small and restricted. It’s still an admirable adaptation, translating the bulk of the five-volume, 365-chapter tome into six hours and not sacrificing much of the depth. It would just have been far more memorable had it all felt a little more emotionally explosive in its climax.
The show reeks of authenticity. Attention to period detail is impeccable throughout, from the settings to costumes, hair, and landscapes. The release shows it all off well. Detail is impressive, colors pop with a natural hue, blacks and contrast all balance well to show off even the grimier locales. All six episodes are presented over two discs, and the second also contains four featurettes each running 3 to 4 minutes in length:
- Les Misérables — An Introduction: The cast introduce themselves and writer Davies gives a broad overview of the themes of the book and journey of the characters.
- The Battle of Waterloo: Showcases the filming of the battle depicted at the opening of the series.
- The Look of Les Misérables: A look at the overall production, hair, clothes, sets, location choices, etc.
- Behind the Barracade: The construction and filming of the setpiece that comes towards the end of the series.
The Bottom Line
As you’d expect from a collaboration between the BBC, Masterpiece, and PBS, this is a quality period piece. A solid, if unstirring, adaptation of a great work of literature captures much of its themes about moral balance, politics, and the deep anguish and injustice that life can often deal, and the enduring power of redemption and love. While it does lose steam in the second half, it should be appreciated for putting the focus on character than grandeur. Perhaps the biggest thing to recommend the series is the distinct lack of Russell Crowe singing.
Les Misérables is available via PBS from May 21st, 2019.