Television review: Les Mis

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, April 5th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham.  

Over the past decade, in the so-called Golden age of Television, PBS has more than held its own against behemoth streaming services and big networks. It’s scored massive ratings with hits like Downton Abbey, Victoria, and Sherlock, as well as critical acclaim with shows like Broadchurch and Call the Midwife.

Its latest production partnership with the BBC, an expansive, glittering adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables seems poised to carry on the winning streak.

The drama premieres April 14 and has already earned rave reviews from UK critics and audiences. And remember, it’s based on Hugo’s novel, not the heady musical that audiences are most familiar with. So no songs here.

Screenwriter Andrew Davies, who also gave us the brilliant 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth, has more than six hours to work with. That means the series delves much deeper into the historical background of Hugo’s tale than perhaps any filmed or staged version so far.

It also means that in portraying the vice and poverty of revolutionary France, the drama at times goes in grittier directions than some Masterpiece viewers may be used to.

CLIP: Paris is a tinderbox. It’ll only take a spark to set it off.

There are pluses and minuses to greater crudity than we saw in the glorious Oscar-winning 2012 film starring Hugh Jackman. The quick flash of Jean Valjean’s whipped, chained bare backside reveals his wretchedness. As does a brief, gut-wrenching scene that illustrates Fantine’s tragic fall into prostitution.

As with the Anne Hathaway version, actress Lily Collins is fully clothed, but the violation happening to her body is still horrifying. Davies also shows Fantine’s romance with the wealthy Felix. We see her drink, dance, and bask in his sweet words until we actually see the lyric, “he slept a summer by my side,” play out.

Though no sex is depicted, Felix and Fantine lounge in bed, sheets barely covering them.

CLIP: The gentlemen have left a letter for you. Oh loving mistresses, at last it is time to remind you that we have parents. We have estates far away in the country and we have duties to perform. Our fathers are calling their prodigal sons home and killing the fatted calves for us. By the time you read this three galloping horses will be carrying us home to our mamas and papas. We are leaving.

It’s certainly more instructive to see the steps in how Fantine’s “dream is turned to shame” along with the tragic after effects. But Davies could have done it without skirting so close to the nudity line.

Similarly, several instances of profanity in the three episodes I screened for review are clearly intended to indicate lower class criminality. And they aren’t worse than what you might hear on any of the big four broadcasters on a weeknight. But given the historical setting, they actually jar us out of the moment.

But back to the plus side. Given so much time to work with, the new PBS version is better able to flesh out Hugo’s characters, allowing an even deeper experience of the spiritual themes that have captured Christian audiences for generations. Olivia Coleman turns in a much more satisfying performance as Cosette’s abusive foster-mother Madame Thenardier than she did in her recent Oscar-winning role in The Favourite.

Her husband, Monsieur Thenardier, grows into something far more insidious than the buffoonish innkeeper we’ve seen before. David Oyelowo’s Inspector Javert also takes on greater complexity. At last we see how he became such an unmerciful legalist.

Without menacing songs or stalking malevolence, it’s clear Javert doesn’t view himself as a villain, any more than we do when we fixate on the sins of others. Oyelowo, a professing Christian who also executive produced the series, recently put it this way to a UK paper: Javert is simply a twisted picture of Old Testament law.

What he demands may be just—according to French law—yet it is terrible.

CLIP: Les Miserables represents redemption, the ability to forgive. Things that I think make it feel very resonant for an audience.

The greatest reason to watch, however, is Damien West as Jean Valjean. Throughout we see little nuances and shades that do so much to better explain his relationships. Why he feels so responsible for Fantine. Why he must struggle so hard not to succumb to Javert’s taunting disbelief that he can ever really be a new creation.

Juxtaposed against the one who accuses him night and day, Valjean’s mercy, grace, and self-sacrifice show he’s the true keeper of God’s law.


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