As far as Andrew Davies is concerned, adapting Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” to the screen independent of Alain Boubil, Jean-Marc Natel, and Herbert Kretzmer’s juggernaut musical was nothing short of an overdue necessity. “I hated the musical,” the writer stated outright at the Television Critics Assn.’s winter press tour in February. “I just wanted to rescue this great book from [that] pathetic virago.”
Suffice it to say, his PBS Masterpiece version of “Les Misérables” does not wear its heart on its sleeve nearly as much as the musical’s bombastic numbers do. But Davies — whose considerable résumé includes adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice,” “Vanity Fair,” and “War and Peace” — nonetheless knows how to mine timeless emotion from tomes that many might dismiss as incurably dry.
This new version of “Les Misérables” comes to us in the form of a handsome, sweeping, straightforward series of six episodes. Davies and director Tom Shankland aren’t trying to reinvent the period piece wheel here so much as spiff it up and send it on its way. And that they do, telling the interweaving stories of the earnest, passionate, petty, complex citizens of post-revolutionary Paris with efficient ease.
It helps that they stacked the cast with strong talent. Lily Collins does a convincingly heartbreaking turn as ill-fated single mother Fantine. Her devastating downfall forms the tragic backbone of the series, but Davies is smart to also show her previously charmed life so that her misery doesn’t completely define her, as is often the case. Adeel Akhtar taps in as the almost comically depraved hustler Thénardier, with none other than recent Academy Award winner Olivia Colman as his scheming wife (a fun but flimsy role she could no doubt play in her sleep). David Bradley, a reliable character actors, does subtle, excellent work as an out-of of-touch aristocrat. Josh O’Connor and Ellie Bamber aren’t particularly exciting as young lovers Marius and Cosette, though in fairness, those roles aren’t particularly exciting even when backdropped by a burgeoning rebellion. More successful is Erin Kellyman as a frank Éponine, a welcome departure from the mooning depiction of the character that the musical made famous.
Crucially, stars and executive producers David Oyelowo and Dominic West find plenty of specific moments to which they can attach their own spins even while playing well-trod and occasionally flat roles. As the perpetually seething Inspector Javert, Oyelowo has less room to stretch; Javert’s single-minded pursuit of escaped convict Jean Valjean (West) is the most frustrating storyline in just about any iteration of “Les Misérables.” Oyelowo is limited to snarling and blinding self-righteousness for so much of the series that it begins to seem a waste of his talent — that is, until the moment when Javert finally breaks. Once freed of his character’s determined stoicism, Oyelowo does a masterful job at of conveying his eroding confidence.
West, who figuratively and often literally shoulders the lion’s share of the series as Valjean, has more to work with — and to his credit, he makes use of every ounce of the material he gets. His Valjean also knows his way around a snarl, but his is tinged with a deep and palpable sadness that never dissipates until his last moments. In fact, the skill with which West and Davies reveal Valjean’s many dimensions is the glue that holds their “Les Misérables” together. No retelling of this story works without truly digging into Valjean’s story, ethos, and psyche; his desperate quest to become a better person in peace is the unlikely beating heart of the entire thing, and this production knows it.
That’s because there’s a reason why “Les Misérables” continues to endure, with or without spontaneous bursts of music. It tells tales of inequality and injustice, decency and depravity. It traces the many infuriating ways that bad circumstances and luck can destroy lives, as well as the transformative, miraculous relief a simple act of kindness can bring. Valjean’s journey of learned compassion is the starkest example of it, but most every character in “Les Misérables” experiences similar awakenings. How good, then, to have a version that has the room and wherewithal to let them.