The BBC’s new adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, Les Misérables, exploded onto our screens at the beginning of January to much anticipation. Hugo’s epic novel takes place in the midst of a France in turmoil, following the collapse of the Napoleonic empire and the reinstatement of the monarchy. Popularised by the musical of the same name, Les Misérables is a gruelling tale of love and loss, betrayal and resolution.
Director Tom Shankland meticulously engineers the world of Hugo’s novel. Rather than residing in the shadow of Boublil and Schönberg’s epic production, Shankland’s version comes into its own. Moving away from the romanticised narrative familiar to many, this new adaptation does justice to the grim horror of the text upon which it is based. Shankland allows the viewer a window into the harsh realities of life in early 19th century France, leaving no detail to the imagination.
Les Misérables plays host to a stellar cast including the formidable Golden Globe winner, Olivia Coleman. She, together with comedian Adeel Akhtar, portray the Thenardiers, a pair of malcontent innkeepers set on thieving their way to the top. Coleman and Akhtar give stand-out performances, delving into the degenerate nature of the two antagonists with highly successful results. Coleman’s portrayal in particular is hard to forget, offering hints of Lady Macbeth in amongst a façade of haughtiness and comedy. Their characters offer up some of the worst of Parisian society, looking out only for themselves, scrambling over anyone who obstructs their way to the top.
Their performance is a sharp contrast to that of Fantine (Lily Collins.) Her tale is doomed from the start and painfully reflects the lack of opportunity and vulnerability of women during the period. The relationship between her and Cosette’s father (Johnny Flynn) appears overly sentimental, perhaps reflecting the way Fantine herself had been drawn in, yet not allowing for a proper consideration of Felix’s awful treatment of the mother of his child. The scene in which the pair first meet was itself uncomfortable, yet what followed placed too much focus on the pair’s pseudo-romance and not enough on the cruelty of its premise.
That being said, Lily Collin’s heart-breaking performance is perhaps one of the show’s defining moments. A far cry from the Fantine we have come to know and love, her decline and ultimate downfall makes for agonising viewing. Collins’s portrayal remains poised and precise throughout doing justice to the tragedy of her character’s unfortunate situation.
The show’s leads, Jean Valjean (Dominic West) and Inspector Javert (David Oyelowo) expertly lay the foundations of Les Misérables epic plot. The tension between the two characters seethes through every exchange, building up each episode’s narrative into the inevitable climax as Valjean slips through Javert’s fingers once again. The pair complement each other well, delivering authentic and absorbing performances. West is an excellent Valjean, laying bare his characters’ personal journey from resentful convict to loving father, moulding his character into a compelling protagonist, urging viewers to sympathise with every step. Equally, Oyelowo brings a new level of determination to Javert. His portrayal, although undeniably cruel, again offers a level of humanity to Javert. His obsession with the reimprisonment of Valjean lingers throughout Oyelowo’s every scene.
The BBC’s new adaptation of this timeless classic is sensitive in its exploration of life in a Paris damaged by the upheaval of revolution. Although at times the emphasis can appear misplaced, Tom Shankland’s direction does justice to Victor Hugo’s pivotal text.
Image credit: bbc.co.uk