Everything about Les Miserables is built on an epic scale. At around 1500 pages, depending on which edition is making your bookshelf sag, Victor Hugo’s novel (published in 1862) is not only physically enormous, but also it deals with MASSIVE themes: love, obsession, redemption, justice, fate and the nature of good and evil. It’s human catnip to adapters seeking to bring the heroic scope of Hugo’s complex saga to stage and screen.
In the huge opening scene of the new BBC One version, the camera panned back from the body-strewn battlefield of Waterloo. Sweeping like an all-seeing eye over the hellish aftermath of conflict, it was a panoramic metaphor for the magnitude and ambition of a world about to unfurl before us over six hour-long episodes.
Whether we’ll be watching that world through the eye of Hugo himself, or the eye of adapter Andrew Davies*, is yet to be determined.
Given the epic scale of disapproval (from some quarters) meted out to Sarah Phelps’s perfectly bleak midwinter version of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, it might be reasonable to wonder if Davies has battened down the hatches. As one outraged viewer noted on Twitter, “he didn’t include the songs!”
However, from the first episode it was clear that once again we will be in the safest of hands – as long as you aren’t expecting to sing along to the chorus of Master of the House.
This was another masterclass in screen adaptation. In 60 minutes, which seemed to pass in the blink of an all-seeing eye, Davies set Hugo’s interconnected plots running with the delicacy and precision of a watchmaker.
Released from hard labour in the French penal hulks, where he has served 19 years for the theft of a loaf, ex-convict Jean Valjean, literally, hits the road to redemption.
Played with ferocious intensity by Dominic West, complete with a beard that could nest 30 sparrows, Valjean is about to discover that man’s inhumanity to man does not always snuff out innate goodness.
Meanwhile, sweet, innocent Parisian seamstress Fantine (Lily Collins) becomes the plaything of rich playboy and poet manqué, Felix Tholomyes, played by Johnny Flynn (see image above), who abandons her at the end of episode one with a small baby and a large problem.
And, injured at Waterloo (and inadvertently saved by a pickpocket called Thenardier – of whom much more is to come in the story), Colonel Pontmercy is denied access to his son, Marius, now being raised by the boy’s dyspeptic grandfather, Monsieur Gillenormand.
West, despite that epic beard, was mesmerising. Initially, Valjean is, understandably, a volcano of anger and resentment oscillating between plain bad and not very nice.
“Men like us have only two choices…” explains prison guard Javert (a still and wonderfully watchful Daniel Oyelowo) as he hands over Valjean’s release papers in a scene that sets up the central conflict of the story.
The son of convicts, Javert tells Valjean that their ‘choice’ is between life as a criminal or as a prison guard.
In Davies’s vision – and in Oyelowo’s cat-subtle flick of an eye over Valjean’s naked body as he shrugs off filthy prison gear – it’s clear that the choice Javert makes at that moment is to bury his attraction to another man so deep that it festers until it becomes something rotten.
We witness the moment a fatal obsession is born.
Newly away from the hulks (and his putative stalker) ex-prisoner 24601 is not yet a good man. Valjean’s encounter with saintly Bishop Myriel – who practically invites him to steal his silverware so that he can demonstrate the quality of mercy is not feigned – offers the first glimmer of redemption.
As Myriel, Derek Jacobi exuded decency and humanity from every pore. This came as quite a relief, Ever since viewing I, Claudius at an impressionable age, Sir Derek has been one of my favourite actors, but (whispers), in recent years, I’ve begun to suspect that some of his performances have been cut from the ripest section of the Stilton. Here he was perfect.
Elsewhere, David Bradley was a living, loathsome leftover from a previous century. His Gillenormand was 20 per cent powdered wig, 10 percent striped silk frock coat and 70 per cent mustiness.
Rising stars twinkled. As dastardly Felix, the increasingly impressive Johnny Flynn murmurs, “I wonder if you know how I’m suffering” as he seduces poor Fantine. Judging by the way Flynn’s hand fluttered at that point to his, frankly, horrendous haircut (reminiscent of an albino hedgehog mating with a Brillo Pad), I wondered if he was actually method acting.
Of course, when it comes to casting, there is an elephant ‘dans la salle’. I’ll end this review with the D word. Diversity.
I’d like to make plea on behalf of young blonde and red-headed female actors everywhere. Lily Collins is a lovely Fantine. Jenna Coleman is pertly perfect as Victoria and Olivia Cooke was a brilliant, diamond-hard Becky Sharp in the recent ITV Vanity Fair.
But here’s a question – you never see them together, do you?
* Do watch Andrew Davies: Rewriting the Classics on BBC iPlayer for a fascinating insight into the process of bringing books to the screen. According to Davies, it’s what you leave out that counts. Good advice for all writers, but especially those who write historical fiction?
Kate Griffin‘s first book, Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders (winner of the 2012 Faber and Faber /Stylist Magazine crime fiction writing competition) was published in July 2013. The sequel, Kitty Peck and the Child of Ill Fortune, was published in July 2015 and book three in the series, Kitty Peck and the Daughter of Sorrow, in July 2017.
Under the name Cate Cain, she has also published two historical mystery books for children, The Jade Boy and The Moon Child (both published by Templar).
All TV images courtesy of BBC Pictures