'Les Miserables': TV Review

No singing, no problem.
4/14/2019

A star-studded cast led by Dominic West, David Oyelowo, Olivia Colman and Lily Collins helps Andrew Davies restore some of the nuance to Victor Hugo's epic classic.

The musical adaptation of Les Miserables, though surely financially successful and whatnot on its own terms, is perhaps the worst thing to happen to Victor Hugo's epic tome. Not only does it gut and egregiously refocus Hugo's decades-spanning saga, but the stripping of nuance from most of the book's non-Javert/Valjean characters is far more criminal than the theft of a loaf of bread.

Andrew Davies, whose credentials as adapter of prestige literary doorstops include War & Peace and Middlemarch, endeavors to restore some of Hugo's grandeur in his solid and respectful take on Les Miserables for PBS' Masterpiece (BBC in the UK). At six plot-filled hours, Davies still trims away many of Hugo's digressions — that we probably spend less than 10 minutes in the Parisian sewers is sure to disappoint a small-but-fanatical audience — but extra time devoted to the novel's heroes and myriad villains deepens the most soul-crushing beats of the novel, while only your own discretion will get in the way of the Pavlovian reaction to burst into song in key interludes.

The core of this Les Miserables remains the conflict between Jean Valjean (Dominic West), a former convict determined to live a life of virtue, and dogged lawman Javert (David Oyelowo), whose rigid refusal to believe people are capable of change is just one catalyst for misery in what is perhaps the most accurately titled work in all of art. The tale, stretching from Waterloo to Paris' 1832 June Rebellion, introduces iconic figures including the doomed gamine Fantine (Lily Collins), repugnant innkeepers the Thenardiers (Olivia Colman and Adeel Akhtar), ill-used Eponine (Erin Kellyman), eternally winsome Cosette (Ellie Bamber), noble-yet-irredeemably-rigid Marius (Josh O'Connor) and more. Many more.

Davies and series director Tom Shankland lack the real estate to follow Hugo into meditations on French military history or cloistered religious orders and there are definitely beats, especially with the students at the barricade in the series' second half, that feel thin and make one appreciate the substance-substituting power of a bombastic ditty or two. On the whole, though, they do a fine job of balancing the story's mixture of intimate and expansive. The treatment of period Paris is a good mixture of location shooting, computer and matte augmentations and then marvelous production design on key sets like the Thenardiers' tavern and those appropriately fetid sewers.

At a moment when trust in law enforcement and legal institutions is at a nadir, it's easy to find contemporary resonance in Davies' transferring of Hugo's themes, reinforced here and there by progressively inclusive casting throughout. This is not, however, an adaptation driven by dramatic irony to appease a modern audience. Shankland may lean into the grit and grime of Valjean's incarceration or the brutal depiction of Fantine's descent into degradation, but the consistent feeling is that he's doing it to assist the actors in grounding their performances and not to come across as exploitative or edgy.

Collins makes for a lovely and then devastating Fantine, introduced in a blighted courtship with Johnny Flynn as the hissable Felix and here given enough scenes with Valjean that his dedication to her and guilt over her makes sense in a way it never has in the musical. Giving Fantine a real and lingering presence also enhances the connection between Valjean and Cosette (played with radiant hopefulness by Bamber), which gives the story its heart. Fantine also gets the miniseries' most blatant baiting of musical fans, several sustained, push-in close-ups accompanied by a swell in the score practically demanding that viewers launch into "I Dreamed a Dream."

West makes Valjean an open wound of regret and moral torment against the glowering rectitude of Oyelowo's Javert, whose driving psychosis is given some sympathetic treatment here without being overexplained.

Colman is perhaps too perfectly cast as Madame Thenardier, a masterstroke that's inevitably disappointing when the character is so limitedly used. David Bradley as arch royalist Monsieur Gillenormand and Derek Jacobi as the saintly Bishop Myriel fall into a similar category. Even at six hours, so many of the supporting roles are raced through so fast that there's extra pleasure in watching Akhtar craft Monsieur Thenardier into a well-rounded character capable of being laughably bumbling one minute and calculatedly nefarious the next.

Les Miserables represents a substantive commitment and yet still feels hours short of an ideal and full Hugo adaptation. It's still effective as melodrama and far more nourishing as a character-driven drama than any telling of the story in recent memory. There may be more potential homes for a project like this than ever before, but it's satisfying seeing the sort of sturdy book-to-screen adaptation Masterpiece does so well.

Cast: Dominic West, David Oyelowo, Lily Collins, Adeel Akhtar, Olivia Colman, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Ellie Bamber, Erin Kellyman and Derek Jacobi

Adapted by: Andrew Davies, from the novel by Victor Hugo

Director: Tom Shankland

Airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on PBS, premiering April 14.