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Thursday, Dec 12, 2019

Les Miserables review: Not revolutionary, but BBC show makes up for Hugh Jackman’s unbearable film

Les Miserables review: The BBC’s new miniseries, starring Dominic West, Lily Collins and David Oyelowo, erases the foul stench of Hugh Jackman’s unbearable 2012 musical. Rating: 4/5.

tv Updated: Aug 28, 2019 17:23 IST
Rohan Naahar
Rohan Naahar
Hindustan Times
Les Miserables review: Dominic West, Lily Collins and David Oyelowo deliver excellent performances in the BBC’s new miniseries.
Les Miserables review: Dominic West, Lily Collins and David Oyelowo deliver excellent performances in the BBC’s new miniseries.
         

Les Misérables
Director - Tom Shankland
Cast - Dominic West, David Oyelowo, Lily Collins, Olivia Colman, Adeel Akhtar
Rating - 4/5 

The new BBC adaptation of Les Misérables is a dependably handsome period drama; one that brings an unexpected intimacy to Victor Hugo’s sweeping epic about redemption and revolution.

Starring an excellent cast lead by Dominic West, David Oyelowo and Lily Collins, the new Les Mis instantly erases the foul stench of director Tom Hooper’s unbearable 2012 adaptation, which remains, even years later, one of only four films I have walked out of in my entire life.

Watch the Les Miserables trailer here 

The differences aren’t difficult to spot. For one, Hugo’s melodrama doesn’t immediately lend itself to a musical adaptation. But before you say anything; yes, I am aware that for most modern audiences, the wildly successful musical is their only exposure to this story; few would have the fortitude necessary to read the 2800 page book.

But the musical, by allowing these characters to sing about their rotten lives, provides them with a psychological freedom that they shouldn’t be given. Les Misérables is a story about entrapment - both physical and emotional - and not about fleeting flights of fancy. And then there was the matter of Hooper’s thorough mishandling of the material. But that’s a discussion for another time; we’ll get an opportunity to talk about his failings as a filmmaker when his Cats adaptation is released later this year.

Fortunately, the veteran dramatist Andrew Davies knows a thing or two about literary adaptations - particularly of massive novels. He previously wrote the BBC’s War & Peace series, starring Paul Dano and Lilly James. In six episodes, he condenses the similarly majestic Les Misérables down to its very essence - a fable in which characters are both intricately fleshed out, but also broad archetypes.

David Oyelowo as Javert, and Dominic West as Jean Valjean.
David Oyelowo as Javert, and Dominic West as Jean Valjean.

As with most television (and even film) adaptations of classic novels - especially ones that have been adapted previously as well - I spent a significant amount of time wondering why we need a new Les Misérables at all. How is a story about the rich at war with the poor, the young at war with the old, and men at war with women; all set against the backdrop of possible war, relevant to the modern world? But then, I answered my own question. At one point, a character even says, “It is a very serious matter making accusations against important public figures.” And I wondered no more.

By forcing these timeless characters to relive their tragedies yet again, Davies and director Tom Shankland have provided a necessary lesson in morality for a modern audience in severe need of one. And a tremendous reason for its success is the performances of its central trio of actors.

As Jean Valjean, Dominic West is impossible to take your eyes away from. Because of his epic character arc, West essentially gets the opportunity to play not one, but five different people. As a prisoner sentences to two decades of hard labour, simply for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his hungry sister, West brings a feral mania that feels all too real, especially after the Broadway unbelievabiliy of Hugh Jackman’s performance in the 2012 film. And as an older, guilt-ridden man trying to make amends for his past sins, West is heartbreaking, and ultimately inspirational.

As Valjean’s eternal foil, Inspector Javert, David Oyelowo brings a much needed emotional complexity to a character that has largely been reduced to a symbol of villainy over the years. Javert in the show is a man conflicted by his own moral code, and is shown to be in a constant struggle with it, as the world around him evolves. It must also be pointed out that the roles of Javert and the dunce Thénardier are both played by persons of colour; we shouldn’t miss a chance to applaud race-blind casting when we see it.

Lily Collins as Fantine, in a still from Les Miserables.
Lily Collins as Fantine, in a still from Les Miserables.

But as terrific as West and Oyelowo are (as well as Adeel Akhtar and the Academy Award-winning Olivia Colman as the cruel Thénardiers), it was Lily Collins’ gut-wrenching performance as Fantine that left me completely gobsmacked. With such little screen-time and not a note to sing, Collins injects an admirable dignity into a character that has been summarily stripped off it.

And now would be as good a time as any to point out that Les Misérables is, by no stretch of the imagination, a pleasing experience. If it doesn’t send you into a spiral of disillusionment, it will, almost certainly, put you in a thoroughly bad mood.

Anyone can show kindness to good people; but it takes a special selflessness to show decency to monsters - especially when you know, for certain, that you cannot expect the same from them. This begs the obvious question: Do monsters deserve kindness at all? Can they be redeemed? Are human beings inherently decent? Les Misérables, despite its rather telling title and propensity for wallowing in a puddle of its own tears, is ultimately optimistic. But an unforgettable final shot in the show suggests that even that optimism is waning.

Starting August 28, Les Misérables is set to air in India on Zee Café as a part of BBC First, weeknights at 10PM.

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar