sun 16/06/2024

Les Misérables, BBC One review - Dominic West looks the part in new Victor Hugo adaptation | reviews, news & interviews

Les Misérables, BBC One review - Dominic West looks the part in new Victor Hugo adaptation

Les Misérables, BBC One review - Dominic West looks the part in new Victor Hugo adaptation

Andrew Davies's non-musical Misérables makes a promising start

Nineteen years a slave: hard time for Jean Valjean (Dominic West)

There’s no singing, no Hugh Jackman and no Anne Hathaway, and the dolorous tone of Andrew Davies’s new adaptation of Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel is established in the opening scene.

It’s the aftermath of the battle of Waterloo in 1815, and the ruffianly Thénardier (Adeel Akhtar) is picking his way through the carpet of bloodied corpses covering the battlefield, rifling their pockets for valuables. To his consternation, one of his victims, Colonel Pontmercy, is still alive. But more about him in future episodes.

Most of the limelight in episode one belonged to Jean Valjean, as he struggled towards the end of a 19-year prison sentence, incurred for stealing a loaf of bread. You'd have thought his circumstances would have left him gaunt and skeletal, but as played by Dominic West, Valjean is broad and bear-like, sporting a tangled fuzzball of beard commodious enough to house a sizeable swarm of bees. His face is burned red by the sun, and his body is covered with scars from assorted beatings. His day job is breaking rocks beside a quarry under the southern skies of Toulouse, and at night he’s chained up in almost Biblical servitude in the vast prison hulks whose creation must have consumed a sizeable percentage of the special effects budget.

The man destined to become his implacable antagonist, Javert (David Oyelowo), is in charge of the pitiless prison guards, and he’s marked Valjean’s card, taunting him for his ineptitude as a thief and predicting scornfully that after his release he’ll soon be back in prison, this time for life. Having had a mutinous prisoner briskly executed by firing squad, Javert expresses his philosophy: “Discipline must be maintained. Otherwise civilisation would collapse.”

However, destiny has other plans for our battered, much put-upon hero. Valjean, the embittered, semi-savage ex-convict, having route-marched his way across wearisome expanses of French countryside, is set on a new and righteous path by his encounter with Bishop Myriel (pictured above), played with saintly forbearance by Derek Jacobi.

We haven’t got to the new and righteous path yet, though we have met Fantine (Lily Collins, pictured left), the naive Parisian seamstress who will figure largely in Valjean’s future. Fantine and her gal-pals have been callously seduced and abandoned by a trio of cold-hearted young toffs, whose cynicism and sense of entitlement we are perhaps intended to interpret as typifying the newly-restored French monarchy and its concomitant aristocracy. Little does she suspect the momentous role that Valjean (as he will no longer be calling himself) will play in her life, assuming that Davies has adhered to Hugo’s plot and not gone off on a dubious rewriting safari as seen in the BBC’s Christmas Poirot.

No sign of that so far though, and anyone familiar with the book will probably feel that it’s in safe hands, more so perhaps than War and Peace, which Davies adapted with mixed results in 2016. The characterisations ring true, the sense of life as a merciless lottery is ever-present, and the performances carry enough weight to suggest that they’ll go the six-part distance. The depiction of an impoverished, war-raddled France bitterly divided between Bonapartist and Royalist sympathisers is enhanced by plausible locations and production design, with John Murphy’s music adding daubs of emotional colour. Fingers crossed for the next five instalments.


Destiny has other plans for our battered, much put-upon hero Valjean


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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