A new miniseries adaptation of Les Misérables starts on TVNZ tonight – and it more than holds up to the novel, says Kate Langdon.
We’ve all heard of Les Misérables in one form or another. It began with the historical novel by Victor Hugo, first published in 1862 and considered one of the greatest novels of the 19th century. Then there’s the long-running musical which first debuted in English in 1985 – the one fondly referred to by theatre going peeps as ‘Lay Miz’ – and the 2012 movie version, in which Hollywood darling Anne Hathaway has her teeth ripped out.
I dig a good 19th century period drama so I was delighted to review this new, highly ambitious six-episode adaptation of Les Misérables. I especially love a 19th century period drama set in France; it’s just well, more civilized. There’s generally way less bodily slop being flung into the streets of Paris than London, and fewer rats scurrying around the sewers too. I’ve always found the rats a bit unnecessary, especially on top of the slops. I mean we get it; it’s a time when things were particularly grim, health and safety-wise.
Anyway, I digress. Back to this series, which is based on Victor Hugo’s original novel and not on the musical…so don’t expect any singing! For those who don’t know the epic story of Lay Miz, it’s largely set in 1832, against the backdrop of post-Napoleonic France, as unrest and rebellion grips Paris once again. Think crop failures, food shortages and increased costs of living, topped off with an outbreak of cholera. (It sounds eerily like NZ in 2019, minus the cholera).
The story follows the lives and interactions of several characters, but mainly that of protagonist Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who struggles to turn his life around when he’s released from prison after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. Which seems excessive. It must have a very expensive loaf of bread, probably a wholegrain soya and linseed gluten free loaf from Amano. Anyway, Valijean conceals his criminal identity and does his best to live a successful and charitable life, despite the relentless obstacles that are thrown in his path, namely the ruthless Inspector Javert who is determined to see Valjean chucked back in the slammer.
Dominic West is superb as Jean Valjean – a tortured soul who craves redemption. However, I must issue a viewer caution, he is not looking his best in this. In fact he looks positively awful, and alarmingly cray. Think grimy vagabond with a bad case of the pox. I am very much hoping he recovers from the pox as the series progresses.
David Oyelowo also delivers a great performance as the righteous and relentless Inspector Javert. In fact, the performances are solid and superb across the board, with the satisfying result of being able to really rummage around in the bowels of the characters. Which is a good thing because these characters that sprouted from the wondrous mind of Victor Hugo are certainly not one dimensional: they are complex and flawed and ponging of desperation.
Olivia Colman (who doesn’t love Olivia Colman?) is outstanding as the villainous wife of the equally despicable inn owner (played by Adeel Akhtar). And Lily Collins (daughter of music royalty Phil) gives a career-rocketing performance as Fantine, whose story, requiring nothing short of a super-sized box of Kleenex, is rightly brought into the spotlight in this retelling.
A young woman with her whole life ahead of her, Fantine is seduced by a charming a-hole poet – who isn’t a sucker for a man with rhyme?. He does a skidding runner and she falls into circumstances in which the morning-after pill hasn’t yet been invented and all levels of society are stacked against her. But it’s her crossing of paths with Jean Valjean, who is poxy no more (hallelujah) which proves to be both her ultimate downfall and salvation.
It’s more than 150 years old, but Les Misérables remains relevant today, vindicating the downtrodden members of society who are forced by unemployment and hunger to commit crime, only to have the wooden shutters of society slammed in their face. I imagine it’s a mammoth task visualising such a classic but it’s one that has been done with lashings of grit and class by adapter and writer Andrew Davies and director Tom Shankland. This version manages to stay satisfyingly true to the great Victor Hugo novel, while reflecting contemporary British society through an ethnically diverse cast rocking all manner of accents. Rather than the extreme cruelty depicted in the book, the focus here is on societal injustice; there’s only so much material that can be covered in six hours of television and no adaptation of a classic will ever be a true match.
The majority of scenes were shot on location in Belguim and Northern France and it shows; it looks legit and, more importantly, it feels like it cost the BBC a fair whack of dosh to produce – which it needed to in order to do this classic yarn justice. The result is a captivating, quality period drama that makes an ideal Easter Sunday treat.
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