Victor Hugo's epic tome, Les Miserables, is a book more people have consumed through popular culture than through its pages. The political tension of the French Revolution, captured through the eyes of various individuals, has been adapted numerous times for film and spawned a Broadway musical people still can't get out of their heads. All this is to say the story is well-worn and any future adaptations will be compared and held up to previous iterations.
That being said, it's been awhile since anyone's attempted to tell Hugo's story straight, eschewing musical numbers for monologues. PBS' take on the material is a six-hour affair that doesn't attempt to create its own revolution, but to present a straightforward adaptation of Hugo's novel for the multitudes who have never read it.
The plot follows Jean Valjean (Dominic West), a convict recently released from prison for stealing a loaf of bread. As much as he hopes to turn his life around, Valjean lands on the wrong side of the law and is hunted by the dogged Inspector Javert (David Oyelowo). Valjean and Javert are legendary foils, both attempting to critique the prison-industrial complex. Their push-pull relationship begs the question: Can a prisoner be reformed or are they set up to fail?
Oyelowo's booming Javert reiterates that Valjean is a criminal in spite of witnessing the man's goodness firsthand. Screenwriter Andrew Davies never says anything new about what this all means, so much as to say that people are complex. Javert isn't completely terrible, just committed to a stereotype that's proven wrong.
Oyelowo's performances are always fantastic, and it's a tad disappointing that he's not playing the lead role. In previous Broadway renditions, black actors have portrayed Javert, but this take on Les Mis is sloppy in its colorblind casting. In the PBS version, Javert is one of several characters of color who are depicted as either villains or hapless victims. It's ironic watching Oyelowo's Javert opine how he knows Valjean is a criminal, while the movie blithely fails to examine any inherent privilege Valjean's whiteness has in this time period. There are some moments of privilege examined, but it's hard to see if these are intentional. Olivia Colman's Madame Thenardier attempts to leave behind her son, Gavroche, who is Black, yet keeps her lighter-skinned daughters. The addition of race is clearly a factor in this version, yet the PBS miniseries fails to lift the veil.
Like most takes on Les Mis, audiences aren't coming for the story. They're here for the performances and this is an actor's showcase. Dominic West is certainly a solid Valjean, but he's overshadowed by Oyelowo's talent. Like Neeson, West gives us a character who is both handsome and endearing, but physically built to present himself as a convict.
There's a sly streak of manipulation within West's portrayal. His relationship with Ellie Bamber's Cosette does not overtly veer into creepy territory, though there are questionable moments once the pair leaves for Paris. At one point, Valjean shows Cosette the terrible conditions of the prisoners to keep her within his control. If anything, this depiction of the Cosette-Valjean relationship depicts how men often imprison women through manipulation by making them fear the outside world. This is how Valjean confines Cosette into the role of a locked princess.
Surprisingly, it's Lily Collins as Fantine who captures the heart of this new Les Mis. Through Fantine's diligently depicted backstory, we see Les Mis is about the evils men unleash on women "for their own good." In fact, Fantine gets a significant backstory involving a young man who seduces and abandons her. She is subsequently slut shamed and judged for her actions, real or imagined. As Fantine, Collins evokes a naked naïveté, so it's easy to see how she's taken advantage of by a cruel, privileged man with wealthy means. Fantine instantaneously garners empathy, and that's before the terrifying physical transformation she undergoes.
If you've watched any of the previous incarnations of Les Miserables, this PBS version won't change your opinion. It's fantastically acted, even if it's a straightforward performance of a widely-lauded story. For the most part, this is prestige television in all its finery and if you're willing to spend six hours with it, you'll certainly enjoy it. Just plan to hum all the musical numbers while you're watching!
Les Misérables premieres stateside on April 14 at 9/c on PBS.