This blog started with a review of Les Misérables six years ago so it seems only appropriate that it now ends with one.
I’m kidding, the blog’s not going anywhere but it is interesting to revisit a story that has now had two screen adaptations in Not Left Handed Film Guide’s short lifetime.
Of course the aforementioned Les Mis was Tom Hooper’s starry film of the famous musical whereas this one is a six part TV version without even a hint of a hum let alone a whole series of powerful emotive ballads. I’ve never read Hugo’s book. (I’ve always intended to, I even downloaded it onto my kindle once where it has since sat taking up 840kb of valuable storage space.) What I had hoped to get from this new Les Misérables then was all that detail and back story that wouldn’t fit into the stage show. This promise is met in the first couple of episodes but actually after that the story just follows all the familiar beats from the musical. What this TV series also gives us though is some different interpretations of the well known characters and these, with the accompanying performances, is what makes it such a treat.
In terms of the expanded narrative, we get to see Fantine’s ill fated love affair which only features as a couple of verses of a song in the musical. It is good to see Lily Collins’ performance of Fantine as an optimistic yet naive young woman as well as a bald and toothless prostitute and this builds on the heartbreak of seeing where she ends up. We are also privy to Marius’ childhood and are able to better understand why his politics contrast with those of his upbringing. The best aspects of these early episodes though are the brief scene at Waterloo where Thenardier meets Marius’ father and the extended depiction of Valjean’s time as a convict.
Under the pen of Andrew Davies, the direction of Tom Shankland and with the excellent performance from Dominic West we really get to see how Valjean’s life as a prisoner has damaged him and the faltering journey he takes toward redemption is so much more complex than Hugh Jackman getting caught with the silver and having an epiphany. The direct effect his actions have in ruining Fantine are also better played here and make more sense of his need to make amends. Tied to all of this is David Oyelowo’s buttoned up Javert who plays effectively off his nemesis all the way through but really comes into his own when his simple but core belief system is destroyed at the end. These final moments between Valjean and Javert are more powerful for being less overwrought. Their denouement is nothing to sing about and is stronger for it.
Elsewhere, Cosette is still soppy and wet, Enjolras is still stubbornly militant and Mr and Mrs Thenardier are still deliciously amoral but here we get to understand why all these people are why they are so much more clearly. Adeel Aktar and Olivia Colman are particularly good as these last two. They retain some of the comedy Dickensian nature of their characters in the musical, especially him, but not with this coming at the expense of how hideous malicious and dangerous they also are.
The Thenardier children, on the other hand, are portrayed very differently to how fans of the show know them. It was always puzzling how the Eponine in the stage show (and its big screen adaptation) remained such a virtuous and uncorrupted individual when her parents were such beasts. Here though she is pretty screwed up too. This serves to make the class divide between her and Marius an insurmountable cultural and behavioural one too which adds to the desperate tragedy of her situation. It isn’t just that she wants to loved; it’s that she doesn’t know how to be. Then there is young Gavroche, whose immediate lineage is never established in the musical. He is not so much the plucky street kid anymore; he’s actually a bit of a psycho who takes thrills in seeing soldiers bleed. You get the impression that this flea wouldn’t bite the bottom of the Pope in Rome; he’d go for the face and look the pontiff right in the eye as he was sinking his teeth in. As events are presented here I think it is, on this occasion, right to blame the parents.
I know the musical of Les Misérables pretty well and hold it in high esteem. I’ve seen the show and the film and I’ve listened to the music a lot. It might be that this new version of the story’s greatest success is in how it made me forget about this while I was watching it. The comparisons discussed here came flooding into my mind as the credits rolled on each of the six episodes and if someone said words such as ‘the virtuous Fantine’ or ‘I am the mayor of this town’ then the ear-worms wriggled to the surface but generally this show is its own glorious thing.
For fans of the book (for whom all of my observations here will be no doubt be old news), for fans of the show or for fans of costume dramas, the BBC’s Les Misérables is a must see.
Les Miserables is on BBC iPlayer until the end of the year.