Review: BBC’s Les Miserables

Published

Credit: Robert Viglasky / BBC

Alexandra Bullard
Writer

Six years after the release of Tom Hooper’s epic Les Miserables in cinemas around the world, Victor Hugo’s masterpiece has been brought back to our screens once again. The timeless classic sees a new all-studded cast without the crowd-pleasing musical numbers. This means no Hugh Jackman, no Anne Hathaway and no Eddie Redmayne. Would director Andrew Davies succeed again as the Master of BBC Drama, especially after his triumphant War and Peace adaptation in 2016? On the evidence of the first two episodes, this series has made a promising start.

The limelight of episode one rested heavily on the last year of Jean Valjean’s (Dominic West) 19-year sentence, as we see his bearded character breaking rocks in the Toulon colony whilst being overwatched by a stern Javert (David Oyelowo). Meanwhile, we are also treated to the background story of the tragic Fantine (Lily Collins), with no idea of what is about to befall her. By the end of the episode, we are set up for the beginning of the familiar first scenes of the stage musical version. However, these three main leads master these roles as if no-one else has attempted them before and the gamble to go song-free has well and truly paid off. Oyelowo is perfect as Javert, unlike his forerunner Russell Crowe who was completely miscast as the vengeful police officer. Lily Collins does not sing her anguished soul out when she is abandoned by her lover. So much so, she impressed me from the get-go with her emotionally rich performance and has successfully overridden Hathaway’s nightmarish version. As for Valjean, being cast as the lead was going to be a risky venture for West. However, he has injected Valjean with just as much power and determination, without the need to break out and start chanting his prison number like Hugh Jackman.

So, all of this begs the question: why was the book made into a flashy musical in the first place? There were no songs in the French historical novel and it has been perfectly brought up to date in Davies’ adaptation. Speaking at Hay festival earlier in 2018, the veteran writer, who also adapted Pride and Prejudice for the BBC, said Victor Hugo’s novel needed a champion: “I thought it’s important that people realise there is a lot more to Les Misérables than that sort of shoddy farrago”, referring to the film musical. On top of this, there’s diversity in the casting and a welcomed array of a wide range of accents and dialects is included, which is not seen in the 2012 film. Instead, the BBC version of Hugo’s epic novel is nothing but a straight adaptation with obvious contemporary relevance scattered throughout.

Yet, whether you’re a fan of the musical adaptation or not, there was always going to be pressure to create a masterful six-piece drama for the BBC. But what this Les Mis does so well is tell a complicated story, without the pomp and grace so many of its predecessors put to use.