The new BBC production of Les Miserables is back to basics- this is a non-musical, straightforward telling of the classic Victor Hugo novel in miniseries form, but for all that it doesn’t do what is required to justify revisiting this story for the umpteenth time, and that’s bring something new to the table. To be fair, at this point Les Mis is sort of like A Christmas Carol- we all know the plot, we know the characters, we know what has to happen to all of them and in what order. Aside from the choice to sing or not to sing, there’s only so much you can do with it.
Dominic West stars as Jean Valjean in this one, a good choice who brings a gruff physicality to the role along with a sincerity of struggle that goes into his existential crisis as he tries to transform himself into a good man. His charisma and presence carries you through the six episodes, as the other actors don’t bring a whole lot of life into their archetypal roles. Lily Collins is a fine Fantine, as we get a much slower, more drawn out process in her suffering and death this time around, but the role remains as melodramatic as ever, and David Oyelowo lacks spark as Javert, who hankers down on one note (re: angry) for the entire series and his scenes get tedious. Worst of all though, is Ellie Bamber and Josh O’Connor as the older Cosette and Marius. These characters are thankless enough, and I don’t know that there’s anything any actor can do to make these two interesting, but if there is, they didn’t find it with these bland performances. It’s a slog to get through the last couple of episodes while the two most irritating teenagers act like ignorant fools so that “love can conquer all.” Right.
One exception in the casting is Olivia Colman and Adeel Akhtar as Monsieur and Madame Thenardier, who bring a delicious Dickensian villainy to their relatively small parts, but it isn’t enough to recommend sitting through all six episodes of this show. You might get something out of it if you’ve never seen any other version of Les Mis before, but there are loads better ones than this. The most I can say is that it’s a faithful, meticulous and handsomely wrought production, but it gets very boring once Valjean and Cosette escape to the convent. The early scenes of his escape from prison and quest to do right by Fantine and rescue the little girl are as effective as ever (the story is timeless for a reason after all), and West really does do well at carrying this whole series on his shoulders, but there isn’t much reason for this one to exist. One thing they did do differently was color bind casting in many of the supporting roles (Oyelowo, Akhtar and Erin Kellyman as Eponine), so that’s nice to see, but it doesn’t change the framework of the story, and I think if you’re going to keep doing this you really have to spice it up to make it feel like something you haven’t seen before. Then again, how many versions of A Christmas Carol are there? Perhaps Jean Valjean’s redemption really is a story that can be retold over and over again.