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Les Miserables (BBC) - What worked and what didn't

Les Miserables

Feature by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

AS THE BBC’S lavish adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables prepares to enter its final episode, we take a look at what has worked in the critically-acclaimed series and what hasn’t.

For while most agree that this has been a worthwhile adaptation, not everything convinced thanks to some lacklustre writing and one or two wayward performances.

Five things that did work

1) Tom Shankland’s direction is often breath-taking in terms of background scenery. From its opening aerial shot over the corpse-strewn battleground of Waterloo to the rousing overhead shots of revolutionaries being charged down by soldiers on horseback around the streets of Paris, this seldom lacked for spectacle.

And even when Shankland wasn’t staging the big scenes, he often provided some wonderful contrasts: from sun-drenched woodlands and gardens offering hope and romance, to the decaying backstreets of Paris or prison, where despair and crime were the order of the day.

2) Dominic West’s portrayal of Jean Valjean was continually impressive, tapping into the inherent decency of the character, as well as the complex emotional turmoil. West provided both a commanding physical presence and a believable emotional one, continually wrestling with his own demons and fears in his bid to do right by his fellow man and atone for the sins of his past.

3) One of the unsung heroes of this production was Erin Kellyman, whose portrayal of doomed prostitute Éponine was stunning. Kellyman’s yearning for Josh O’Connor’s Marius was often heartbreaking, yet also shot through with emotional complexity.

In just a few short scenes, the actress cut to the core of the turmoil her character regularly went through – from suffering at the abusive hands of her parents (Olivia Colman and Adeel Akhtar) to coming to realise that she could never win the heart of the man she loved, given how smitten he was with someone else. Her journey concluded in dramatic fashion as she perished saving the life of Marius at the barricade. In doing so, she delivered the most emotionally wrenching scene of the series to date. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing a lot more of Kellyman in the future, as she is undoubtedly one of Les Miserables breakout stars.

4) Olivia Colman lit up the screen whenever she was on it. Her Madame Thénardier was a truly repugnant character and Colman clearly relished the chance to play someone darker and altogether more despicable than some of the roles she’s more accustomed to playing. Just occasionally, she veered towards the pantomime, but in her moments of pure vindictiveness and spite, she was a proper villain.

5) The escalating tension between David Oyelowo’s Inspector Javert and West’s Jean Valjean was palpable for all to see. And while the writing didn’t always serve Oyelowo’s overall character well (we’ll come to that), his scenes with West were often thrilling – there just weren’t enough of them.

Five things that didn’t work

Les Miserables

1) Quite often, I found myself frustrated by what Andrew Davies left out of his screenplay. Primary among these was a decent backstory for David Oyelowo’s Inspector Javert, whose obsessive quest to capture Jean Valjean was never really explained. Similarly, by placing too much emphasis on the failed relationship between Lily Collins’ Fantine and young fop Felix in the first episode came at the expense of the relationship between Fantine and her young daughter at the start of the second, when a gut-wrenching scene of a mother abandoning her daughter struggled to hit the emotional heights it should have.

2) Likewise, the insipid romance between Josh O’Connor’s Marius and Ellie Bamber’s Cosette lacked any depth or believability. Their undying love blossomed quickly and struggled to hold much interest against the far more interesting backdrop of the impending revolution. But it was poorly written, too – soggy and acted with very little chemistry given the time constraints that both Bamber and O’Connor faced in making it work.

3) Another failed relationship was the one between David Bradley’s hiss-worthy Gillenormand and O’Connor’s Marius. It lacked the depth of feeling that should have emerged from the former’s decision to deprive the latter of seeing his father as a child. Hence, as satisfying as Gillenormand’s comeuppance undoubtedly was in episode five, Bradley hadn’t been afforded the opportunity to appear anything other than a pantomime villain, thereby making his efforts to look crestfallen appear wasted. One wonders whether there was more to this relationship [and Bradley’s performance] left on the editing floor.

4) In countless adaptations of Les Miserables, the brief and tragic journey of Fantine (as played here by Lily Collins) is one of the most memorable the narrative has to offer. On this occasion, her journey felt more like it was going through the motions. Her one big scene, of being degraded for her hair and teeth, was hard to watch but strangely felt more cold than heartbreaking… while the brevity of her scenes with her daughter also denied Collins the opportunity to really leave a more lasting tragic impression. Perhaps the lack of that clinching song, I Dreamed A Dream (the one that secured Anne Hathaway her Oscar in the recent film version), was more notable than at first seemed.

5) Given that Les Miserables is airing at a time of massive social upheaval across Europe and America, with distrust in politicians and frustrations at class division arguably at an all-time high, Davies’ decision to offer only a cursory examination of the social and political backdrop to the revolution seemed remiss. This Les Miserables should really have resonated on a political level with modern audiences. It should have felt more contemporary than it does. Instead, by sticking so closely to Hugo’s source text, it missed a trick in being more relevant.