The BBC’s rousing and blessedly song-free adaptation of Les Misérables gets off to a fine start, with impeccable production and a faultless cast.
This recap of Les Misérables Episode 1 contains spoilers.
At this point, Les Misérables – Victor Hugo’s 19th Century doorstopper chronicle of relentless French misery – is such a cultural fixture that the idea of yet another adaptation seems faintly depressing. It might have been some time since the inexplicably lauded Hollywood telling, but it feels like no time at all; and the British public’s inability to look at the sing-along version as anything but the definitive one is an immediate hurdle to be cleared by this new six-part re-do courtesy of Andrew Davies and director Tom Shankland.
It’s a hurdle that, I’m pleased to report, Les Misérables sails over without much fuss. By sticking closer to the source material the tale is immediately a bit less crowd-pleasing and a bit more maudlin, but such is life, I suppose. The story’s timeless theme of compassion and altruism being the only antidote to overwhelming cruelty and unfairness is pretty explicit, after all, and the fact that a lot of people tend to think it’s just about singing suggests that a version without the songs is more necessary than we thought.
The obvious consequence of having such ludicrously expansive source material is that Les Misérables Episode 1 can’t help but feel a bit all over the place, but realistically it’s telling two major stories: the first is of Jean Valjean, aka Prisoner 24601, here played by Dominic West as a near-silent brute of a man imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread; and the second is of Fantine, a doe-eyed beauty played mostly by the eyebrows of Lily Collins, who here – in something of a prequel to her better-known stage story – is charmed and ultimately left manipulated and up the duff by Johnny Flynn, who has evidently fallen to the dark side since his endlessly likable turn on ITV’s Vanity Fair.
Since both of these stories really come into their own later, anyone unfamiliar with the source material is going to feel a bit underwhelmed by them. David Oyelowo’s Javert seems somewhat irrationally obsessed with Valjean at this point, and while Fantine is almost immediately sympathetic, unless you’re expecting the sheer misery that awaits her then she isn’t much more than a pretty mistress who was abandoned by her fella.
But this is all an advantage of Les Misérables quite clearly attempting to tell the richest possible version of this story; by the time the real calamities hit, these characters will be bedded in and the audience will be invested in their plights, probably without even realising quite how much. It bodes well for subsequent episodes, even if this one took its time and kept its cards close, perhaps somewhat to a fault.