There are no songs and chances are you know the story, but Les Misérables demands your attention.
It has a formidable cast, emotive themes and money on the screen.
Screenwriter Andrew Davies (War & Peace, Mr. Selfridge, House of Cards, Bleak House, The Line of Beauty) has adapted Victor Hugo’s classic beyond the characters depicted in the famed stage musical.
In a sprawling saga there are multiple storylines and while their intersection is not always apparent, you know they will collide, sans “One Day More.”
The tale commences in 1815 after Napoleon was defeated in the Battle of Waterloo. In battlefield scenes with hundreds of extras, reminiscent of Gone with the Wind (which clearly had no CGI), Thénardier (Adeel Akhtar) saves the life of Col. Pontmercy (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), before stealing from him. Pontmercy is father to a young Marius (Josh O’Connor).
“If we both survive you can call on me I swear it,” promises Col. Pontmercy.
But when Pontmercy returns home to see his young son, his wealthy father in law (David Bradley) has banished him from the house. It is only thanks to the kindness of a house maid that he can see him at Church on Sundays.
Meanwhile prisoner 24601 Jean Valjean (Dominic West) is working under the watch of the ruthless Javert (David Oyelowo) when he draws upon his brute strength to both crush and rescue a prison guard. Some of the display attracts the attention of Javert but Valjean’s defiant attitude sets the pair on a bitter warpath that will escalate as Paris rises up.
“Whatever you think, you can never win,” Javert warns him.
Elsewhere a young Fantine (Lily Collins) catches the attention of soldier Felix Tholomyès (Johnny Flynn), declaring her the most beautiful sight he has seen. A whirlwind romance ensues as Fantine yarns to rise above her station.
A year later Valjean is released from prison but freedom is frequently in name only. Shunned from village to village he eventually encounters the generosity of Bishop Myriel (Derek Jacobi). For the hardened Valjean, such benevolence is unfamiliar and confusing. It is here that the Bishop famously ‘buys his soul’ creating a turning point for our flawed hero.
The gentle Jacobi is but one of the highlights of a captivating first episode, underpinned by the strength of Dominic West and the merciless David Oyelowo.
Andrew Davies keeps the momentum moving without ever causing your attention to wane -even at 6 episodes there is a lot to jam into the allocated time. Visually this is a splendid recreation with period and class distinctive settings. Producers have also opted for ‘blind casting’ with David Oyelowo, who has Nigerian heritage, as Javert. If there is any quibble, it is that British accents are hard to ignore in this French revolution tale.
If you know this story you will be wooed by its new perspective, and if you don’t this is a sumptuous and accessible experience. Don’t miss it.
Les Misérables 8:30pm Sundays on BBC First.