I think, by now, it’s fairly well known that there’s no one that does period drama quite like the BBC. While ITV have had a fair stab at it, particularly with their recent success of a modernised, sexed up Vanity Fayre, and Channel 4 have brought a raw edge to their period dramas such as The Mill (2013), based on real life stories of mill workers during the industrial revolution, the BBC seem to get it right every time.
Maybe that’s because they have Andrew Davies, Welsh Screenwriter of many popular period drama adaptations, most notably the 1995 version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, featuring Colin Firth as popular cultures most memorable Mr Darcy. This Winters adaptation of Victor Hugo’s tale of love and loss in a war-torn 19th century France is BBC period drama at its very best. With a talented cast including Dominic West as criminal on the run Jean valjean, Lilly Collins as tragic fated Fantine and Olivia Coleman as wicked innkeeper Thenardia’s wife. Davies’ adaptation, shown as a mini series over 6 weeks, strips out any musical distractions and focuses on the bare bones of Hugo’s story, offering us complex characters that grip us from the very beginning. Tom Shankland directs with great flair and colour, providing a truly vivid and harrowing experience which is on a par with the 2012 film and West End production, while standing strong as a commendable project in its own right.
At the crux of the story are Dominic West as Jean Valjean and David Oyelowo as Javert. A prisoner, persecuted for stealing a loaf of bread and the police chief who will stop at nothing to see his prisoner suffer and to find him and bring him back to justice when he escapes. Both actors are impressive in their roles, commanding the screen and drawing the viewer in to their intense relationship. For one cannot seem to survive without the other, and their lives are forever interconnected, ruling each others tragic fate. They blame their misfortunes and bad judgement on each other, unable to cut the tie that binds them until a tragic decision finally frees them from each other and their own demons. Never have two characters been so gripping to watch, and Davies seems to bring each man into the light, to explore and lay bare their flaws and vulnerabilities. While Jean Val Jean is a thief, who lies and steals, even from a child, we see that he feels remorse and seeks redemption, by the fact that he carries the candle sticks he took from the vicar who saved him, everywhere he goes. He also makes his way in the world and becomes the head of a factory, where he meets the lost and fragile Fantine. He is later haunted by his decision to cast her out when he hears she has a daughter and is unmarried, and tries to save her. When it’s too late he later saves her daughter from the same tragic fate. Jean Val Jean is forever haunted by his past, and too by Javert, who seeks as a constant reminder of the man he was and the man he could still be.
Javert, first appears as a stern, law protecting policeman, who thinks little of the prisoners he overrules. We see him shouting and beating them, ordering them around and in one powerful scene, standing at the top of a cliff looking down on them as they work in a pit below. As the story moves forward, Javert rises through the ranks to become chief of Police in Paris, but he is obsessed with one thing. Finding the escaped criminal Jean Valjean. For he is his one weakness, his one mistake, his one vulnerability. Something about Valjean gets under Javert’s skin. He becomes rich and dizzy with power and he sees nothing but the one man he has devoted his life to, even connecting the French revolutionary movements with Valjean as its leader. As time moves on and Valjean seems to forever slip through his grasp, a chance encounter, and an unexpected act by Valjean, throws Javert’s existence into jeopardy. In the final scenes of the series, Oyelowo shows Javert at his most vulnerable and conflicted. Like Valjean, he too is a changed man, but he cannot accept his fate as easily and his path to redemption is brief and tragic.
Olivia Coleman is brilliantly funny as Madama Thenardier, alongside Adeel Akhtar as Thenardier, innkeeper to whom she is married. Together they provide the humour of the story, which would be extremely dark and depressing without them. They hatch plans to make money in any way they can, taking in wayward children to do their dirty work at the inn, including poor Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, when she must leave the area to find work. Coleman has received praise worldwide lately for her work in several media outlets, including the award-winning film, The favourite. She is fabulous in Les Mis, as is Adeel Akhtar who spurs her on to join in his wicked ways while mistreating her if she steps out of line and using their children as bait for unsuspecting passers by. Thenardier goes around telling people he saved a colonel in the war, when really he inadvertently saved him while stealing his wallet. A giant painting accompanies him later on, which supposedly tells of his valiant efforts, much to the amusement of the viewer.
When Thenardier pops up in the sewer under the streets of Paris, with a key, to let Valjean free when he’s escaping the French soldiers during the unrest, for a price of course, it’s one of the most bizarre scenes in television. But it’s not an illusion by the failing Valjean or the man he rescues (Marius Pontmercy, Cosette’s suitor) which adds to the humour of this dark story and the absurd nature of Thenardier’s characters and his desperate efforts to get whatever he can from the streets that he believes have short-changed him.
Lilly Collins takes a fabulous turn as troubled Fantine, whose story is perhaps the most tragic and enduring. Young and naive, earning a modest living, the orphan girl soon catches the attention of a rich student. We see her being seduced and falling in love with this man, before being left abandoned, with a crying baby in her arms. This is only the beginning of Fantine’s tragic story. From here she fights desperately to protect her child and find a job, falling prey to Thenardier’s money-making schemes when she leaves her daughter at his inn to be looked after while she earns a living. Jean Valjean’s actions when discovering her lies, set her on the downward spiral to her ultimate death. After watching Anne Hathaway’s performance in the 2012 film of Les Mis, I did not think a more powerful rendition of Fantine’s suffering could be realised. Yet Collins’ portrayal of the young girl who in desperation to protect her child, turns to a street vendor who cuts off her beautiful long hair and pulls her teeth out with pliers, is harrowing and surreal. Expecting this scene at some point during the programme, I still had to turn my head away for the sheer brutality of the moment. In these scenes Hugo’s heart breaking story and desperately tragic are brought to life.
We then suffer the pain of watching Cosette grow up with the Thenardier’s, beaten, scolded and treated as a slave. They travel from place to place scheming and lying to get whatever they can. Until Jean Valjean comes to gain redemption and save the child, whose Mother he failed. As the world moves on, and the revolution gains power, we see Cosette grow and change, curious for a world outside of her shelter, a world were temptation and danger exists. Jean Valjean fights to protect her, whatever the cost, at the same time trying to escape the clutches of the man who claimed his past and desperately wants to take his future.
In just six episodes, Andrew Davies and Tom Shankland manage to portray Hugo’s story with passion, drama and some much-needed humour, taking the viewer on a powerful journey through the lives of some very real characters at a poignant point in French history. The cast and crew should be proud of such an adaptation, which stands alone as a modern TV series focusing on the pure heart of Hugo’s story, with no need for music, big special effects or embellishments. The big stars add something special, but the writing and filming make it a winner.