“Do you hear the people sing?” Well, not really, because this isn’t the Les Miserables that packed theatres worldwide, made a musical star of Anne Hathaway and a running gag of Russell Crowe. This is a far less melodic adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic novel, in which everybody is too busy either raging against injustice or obsessing about vengeance to break into song. Eschewing the tunes, however, doesn’t mean skimping on the spectacle, and this BBC prestige piece paints its story on a canvas as broad and epic as it is grim and desperate.
We open on the battlefield at Waterloo, where the ground is littered with the corpses of Napoleon’s unfortunate forces – one of whom shows a little more life than the average corpse, regaining consciousness just as the dastardly Monsieur Thenardier is trying to relieve him of his valuables. Elsewhere, the beautiful and doomed Fantine falls in love, while the tortured hero Jean Valjean – sentenced to nineteen years’ hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread – is brutalised by sadistic guards. And so the scene is set for a story spanning decades of tumult both personal and political.
The best historical dramas are those which find contemporary resonances while still fully inhabiting their own context. Les Miserables’ themes couldn’t be more relevant – with injustice, inequality and revolution in the air – but the production does not wink at the modern viewer or lay on the parallels with a trowel, a temptation many succumb to. It has no need to, as the original novel has quite enough outrage and revolutionary fury to be getting on with. The audience should be able to find the applicable messages for themselves, but if not they may simply enjoy a cracking, complex tale – a tale that, however momentous the historical backdrop, is focused on the intimate scale of the lives of the poor and forgotten. History has a tendency of writing out the voiceless millions who are caught up in its sweep, and as the title suggests, this story is concerned with those hapless masses – the wretched, the dispossessed, “the miserable ones”.
Among them, of course, are Valjean and Fantine, two people used and abused in different ways by the cruel representatives of an unfeeling system. Valjean is played here by Dominic West, an imposing, fierce-faced actor well capable of conveying both the granite-hard outer shell that grows on a man after years of being beaten down and ground into the dirt, and the softer inside that remains, against all odds, to believe in hope. West is given a marvellous nemesis in David Oyelowo, who is magnetic as Javert, the merciless officer who makes life hell for Valjean in prison and embarks with frightening single-mindedness to hunt him down after his release. Javert is a remorseless, tyrannical force of nature, but as played by Oyelowo an oddly human one at the same time: trapped by his own circumstances – or perhaps his own nature – as much as his victims.
The Valjean-Javert battle, from the start of the series, provides the show’s most compelling moments, but as the disparate threads of the story begin to knit together, others get their chances to shine. Lily Collins as Fantine is almost impossibly angelic as she suffers degradation upon degradation, but does manage to tug the heartstrings effectively. In the first episode there is also fine work from veterans Derek Jacobi – as a kindly bishop – and David Bradley as a thoroughly nasty old aristocrat. Of course, in this world, “nasty old aristocrat” is a tautology. As Daffy Duck said, it’s the rich what gets the gravy, and the poor what gets the blame. Les Miserables is a gorgeously conceived means of getting that depressing, eternal truth across.
Les Miserables is on iview and ABC from Saturday, July 4, at 8.20pm.