‘Les Misérables’: A Grand, Romantic Alternative to ‘Game of Thrones’
The new 6-episode miniseries, premiering April 14 on PBS, soars—and boasts a star-studded cast including Dominic West, David Oyelowo, Lily Collins, and Oscar winner Olivia Colman.
There are no musical numbers in PBS’s Les Misérables, but that doesn’t mean this new six-part “Masterpiece” miniseries—produced by the BBC, and taking Victor Hugo’s acclaimed 1862 novel as its direct source—doesn’t sing a rousing (figurative) song of angry men. An exceptional adaptation of its classic material, it resounds with heart, horror and complexity, eschewing revisionist flourishes to faithfully recount its fateful 19th-century saga about man’s darkest impulses—and, also, his capacity for redemption.
The price of liberty is high in Les Misérables, and so too is the cost of transformative change, both personal and political. That theme is front-and-center throughout this latest take on Hugo’s tale, which avoids massive alterations in favor of a straightforward and stirring approach. Precisely written by Andrew Davies, previously responsible for the BBC’s Middlemarch, Vanity Fair, Pride and Prejudice, Bleak House and War and Peace (as well as the original House of Cards and Bridget Jones’ Diary), and competently helmed by Tom Shankland, it abridges little of crucial importance. As a result, it allows Hugo’s potent human drama—and sterling performances from Dominic West, David Oyelowo and Lily Collins—to carry it from wretched start to inspiring conclusion.
Premiering April 14 on PBS, after which it will be available (beginning May 20) to binge in its entirety on the Masterpiece Prime Video Channel on Amazon, Davies and Shankland’s series streamlines its story’s chronology, opening on a June 1815 battlefield where, with Napoleon’s forces in ruins, Thénardier (Adeel Akhtar) tries to rob the corpse of Colonel Pontmercy (Henry Lloyd-Hughes). When Pontmercy turns out to be alive, Thénardier pretends to be saving him—thus earning from Pontmercy a life debt. Meanwhile in Paris, royalist Monsieur Gillenormand (David Bradley) curses his Bonapartist son Pontmercy to anyone who will listen, including his grandson Marius. And in the Toulon prison hulks, a convict named Jean Valjean (West) struggles to finish his 19-year sentence (for stealing a loaf of bread) under the tyrannical guard of Javert (Oyelowo)—two men whose paths are destined to repeatedly cross over the course of the ensuing decades.
“Men like us have only two choices: to prey on society or to guard it. You chose the former, I chose the latter,” Javert tells Valjean, thereby establishing his belief that one’s inherent good/evil nature is fixed at birth, as well as Les Misérables’ central conflict. Anyone who’s read Hugo’s novel or seen the smash Broadway musical will know that considerable suffering awaits both, as Valjean will respond to life’s cruelty by pilfering candlesticks from a Bishop (Derek Jacobi) and, worse, a coin from young Petit-Gervais (Henry Lawfull), and Javert will fume over his inability to catch Valjean. Misery will also befall Fantine (Collins), a young seamstress who’s left with child by a callous aristocratic playboy and, to support herself and her offspring, will leave her daughter Cosette in the care of the dastardly Thénardier and his wife (newly minted Best Actress Oscar winner Olivia Colman), whose hunger for money—and fondness for cheating suckers out of it—is matched only by their abusiveness.
Les Misérables doesn’t mess with what works, and at six-plus hours, it has the space needed to do justice to its every incident and emotional upheaval. While a few minor elements are condensed or discarded, Davies’ script is true to Hugo’s tome in terms of basic plot particulars and rousing spirit (a cornier writer might say that the beating of its heart echoes the beating of its narrative drum, but I digress…). Fantine’s misfortune and degradation are depicted in harrowing detail, and made all the more moving by Collins’ evocation of the doomed girl’s initial liveliness and innocence. Her agonizing deathbed scene is one of the series’ high points, and thankfully, the show’s urgency doesn’t flag after she’s perished and the focus shifts to the older Cosette (Ellie Bamber) and her romance with Marius (Josh O’Connor), now a law student thinking about taking part in an impending uprising against the Crown.
This Les Misérables flirts with definitiveness, conveying with passion and nuance the arduous struggles of Valjean and Javert, the former trying to prove (to himself, and society) that a man can be what he wants—for better or worse—and the latter convinced that such a notion is fantasy. West’s magnificent performance leads the way, mixing hope and faith with fear and self-doubt to brilliant effect, and he’s nearly matched by Oyelowo, whose Javert is less a titanic monster than a small, dogged, heartless authoritarian consumed by a desire to “win” by capturing Valjean, which in turn would validate his cynical worldview. West and Oyelowo make their iconic characters not mere representations of themes but living, breathing, fallible adversaries, and they do so with such dexterous skill that it’s hard not to be swept up in their respective plights.
As you may have realized by now, this Les Misérables casts a person of color as Javert, and it does likewise with Éponine, played by Erin Kellyman. Those moves follow in the footsteps of a few stage productions (including, notably, 2014’s Broadway rendition), and they are, unsurprisingly, of no appreciable consequence, except to demonstrate that Hugo’s characters are defined not by their appearances but, rather, by their social marginalization and/or tormented internal conditions. If there’s a shortcoming here, it’s Shankland’s direction, which strives for, and occasionally achieves, a sense of grand scale, yet as with the climactic barricade showdown between soldiers and insurgents, sometimes feels a bit visually cramped. That’s exacerbated by his preference for close-ups, yet unlike with Tom Hooper’s in-your-face 2012 musical film, those turn out to be beneficial for his stars, including a suitably nasty Colman and Akhtar as the Thénardiers.
You’ll be forgiven for involuntarily humming some of the musical’s most famous tunes during Les Misérables’ key moments. Still, Davies and Shankland’s version—scored, mournfully, by John Murphy—stands on its own as a rich, intricate portrait of regret, guilt, rebellion and salvation. It exists in the gritty, grimy muck of the real world, where kindness and mercy are in short supply (especially for women), and brutish nastiness is the order of the day. Moreover, it’s loyal to the dense profundity of Hugo’s work, whose understanding of revolutionary individual and social movements (inspired by God and man alike) proves to be as timely and poignant as ever.