Les Miserables episode 1 review: a faithful retelling with a timeless moral

Andrew Davies' loyal Les Miserables adaptation is a plea for compassion and kindness in a cruel world. Spoilers ahead...

This review contains spoilers.

“So long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.” Thus wrote Victor Hugo in his introduction to Les Misérables. Hugo didn’t add anything about adaptations, but presumably the same applies. So long as ignorance and misery remain on earth (tick!) new versions of Hugo’s socially conscious story cannot be useless.  

This one isn’t, largely thanks to Dominic West’s growling, but also because the six-part BBC series serves a very specific use. It’s a bridge between the New Year and mid-February. Set foot on it now, in a house full of tinsel and vol-au-vents, and in six weeks’ time, you’ll end up in 2019 proper. Trust me. You won’t even realise it’s happened.

The six-hour adaptation comes from Andrew Davies, following up 2016’s War & Peace (and 1995’s Pride And Prejudice, 1998’s Vanity Fair, 2002’s Bleak House and 2008’s Little Dorrit and so on…) with another great European novel.

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Davies and director Tom Shankland have skipped the crowd-pleasing musical version in favour of returning to the literary source. Don’t be mistaken – the songs are still there, but this time they play only inside your head, over the top of John Murphy’s unobtrusive new score. Watch Lily Collins’s very pretty, but so far, pretty blank Fantine have her heart broken in the first hour and you’ll be humming about tigers coming at night until next Sunday. 

Taken from the novel, Fantine’s episode one story is a prequel to the better-known stage version. We see the summer that dishonourable Félix (a rakish Johnny Flynn) slept at her side, filling her days with endless wonder and filling her nights with… well, here’s baby Cosette. It’s a wretched parable that takes Fantine from innocence to experience, and half of this episode’s lament on inequality and cruelty.

The other half comes from West’s Jean Valjean, resident of a Toulon prison hulk for nigh-on two decades. Prisoner 24601’s time breaking rocks in the hot sun has beaten down his humanity until he’s almost the beast they treat him as. West doesn’t even speak for his first mournful half-hour, silently depicting Valjean’s brute strength and violent resentment. His original crime—stealing a loaf of bread—is a farcically cruel exchange to have made for his freedom and his mercy.

That mercy isn’t quite exhausted, and the end of the hour sees Valjean’s epiphany. After stealing a paltry sum from a passing child out of cruel habit, the peal of church bells awakens his conscience. Bishop Myriel (Derek Jacobi), from whom he stole and who forgave and protected him, roused it through charitable kindness.

Thus begins Les Misérables’ object lesson: cruelty and injustice make the world hell and make wretches of men. Love and compassion are their remedy. It’s a much-repeated message (thanks to Dickens and his ghosts, especially at this time of year) that nevertheless bears repeating.

Jacobi and West’s scenes as the bishop welcomes Valjean into his home are this episode’s highlight. Jacobi adds intelligence and wit to Myriel’s clemency and warmth, making the character feel more human than paragon. West’s violent manners and animalism, as a contrast, are convincingly dangerous. (West is very good here, from his roaring to his spot-on Sean Bean impersonation.) As Valjean’s nemesis Javert, David Oyelowo has yet to make as strong an impression. His hatred of the prisoner so far feels arbitrary, but it’s early days yet.

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Another highlight is the scene in which Fantine’s beau and his rich boy pals laugh themselves silly over their scheme to abandon their mistresses as a marvellous “surprise.” Treated thus, Fantine can’t but be sympathetic, and Flynn made Félix magnetic in his awfulness.

There was yet more cruelty in the story of Colonel Pontmercy (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), a Bonapartist whose royalist father-in-law (David Bradley) stands heartlessly between him and his young son Marius.

Pontmercy’s introduction on the sprawling battlefield of Waterloo announces this adaptation’s ambitious scale. Les Misérables is setting out to tell as full a version of the story as possible, and with six hours to fill, it can afford to take its time. (The recreation of the hovels of nineteenth-century Paris are a shorthand for Hugo’s lengthy digressions on poverty. Where 50 pages once stood, now stands a bleating goat and a filthy urchin.) Despite a plot that spans almost two decades, a huge cast of characters, and one of the longest novels in history as its source material, there’s no sense here of hurrying.

It’s not a bold reimagining, nor a modernised or stylised one. It hasn’t been sexed up or made grittier for a 21st century audience. It’s a faithful, well-made, and yes, perhaps unadventurous, retelling of a collection of stories whose protest against injustice will, as Hugo wrote, always serve a purpose.

Les Misérables continues next Sunday the 6th of January at 9pm on BBC One.