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Les Miserables (BBC) - First episode review

Les Miserables

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

HAVING adapted War & Peace to such critical acclaim for the BBC a couple of years ago, Andrew Davies returns with his take on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables looking to repeat the trick.

Stripped of its songs (and the likes of Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway), the ensuing drama nevertheless boasts a star-studded ensemble and is designed to offer viewers their first taste of epic TV for 2019. And so far, so OK.

Lavish in its design and powered by some strong performances, the omens appear to be good even if the pace – thus far – is slow.

On the plus side, the ambitious scope of the show is immediate for all to see. The opening scene, amid a corpse-strewn Waterloo, post-battle, was stunning by virtue of its bleakness, thereby setting the tone for the melancholy tale that followed.

The beautiful French countryside featured prominently thereafter, along with several other locations, but while the backdrop proved easy on the eye, the emotional foreground has already started to become gruelling.

In the case of Dominic West’s brooding, muscular Jean Valjean, especially so. A prisoner serving his last year, Valjean has to contend with the stern presence of David Oyelowo’s Javert, who seems to hold a personal vendetta against him, as well as his own personal demons.

Once out, he bids to get his life back on track, despite a warning from Javert that he is destined to fail. And fail he looks set to, until the intervention of Derek Jacobi’s kindly priest Monseigneur Myriel, who buys his soul and bids him to start doing good. But even upon being offered salvation [of sorts], Valjean must curb his meaner tendencies and is only at the crossroads of his life by the first episode’s end.

Then there’s Lily Collins’ Fantine, a feisty if naïve grisette, whose seemingly fairytale romance with young fop Felix is destined to fail – albeit leaving her with a babe in arms.

Admittedly, this side of Davies’ screenplay struggled to hold the attention as greatly as Valjean’s early days. And the decision to include the intricacies of Fantine’s romance (not seen in previous adaptations) came at the expense of really building on the rivalry between Valjean and Javert (and, in turn, Oyelowo’s presence). It slowed things down.

And the lack of anything genuinely revisionist or daring is a little disappointing. The BBC has very much gone for a traditional storytelling approach, which honours the literary source rather than seeking to update it too much.

That said, with the promise of great tragedy to come, as well as stirring scenes of revolution, Davies appears to have laid some solid groundwork to enable the story to really kick in. It just remains to be seen whether our early patience will be rewarded with an emotional rollercoaster of epic proportions, especially given the familiarity with which audiences hold Les Miserables as a whole.