Les Miserables episode 2 review: part tragedy, part pantomime

Fantine's fate worsens as Valjean faces a dilemma in Les Miserables episode two. Spoilers in our review...

This review contains spoilers. 

Proof that the end-of-year festivities are done and the hangover of January is well begun, on Saturday night BBC Two aired Ken Loach’s blistering critique of the UK welfare system I, Daniel Blake. On Sunday night, BBC One followed up with prequel ‘I, Fantine Thibault’, a similar story but with more baguettes.  

I jest. There were actually very few baguettes in Les Miserables part two, an episode worthy of the title. A bit of pain de campagne would have served starving Fantine well, not that the poor wretch would’ve been able to chew it. The 19th century French welfare system consisting solely of a greasy sign pointing to the local sex work tunnel, a jobless Fantine was forced to sell her hair, teeth and eventually, body to make ends meet. 

Ends, continually stretched by swindling innkeepers the Thenardiers (Adeel Akhtar and Olivia Colman), did not meet. Having deposited her beloved daughter Cosette in their care, Fantine was preyed upon by the couple, whose demands for ever higher payments left her destitute. 

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It was an hour of cruel coincidences and avoidable tragedy. We watched Fantine neatly stripped of everything she had. She lost her child, her job, her beauty, her dignity and, had Valjean not interceded on her behalf, would also have lost her freedom. Will she next, left feverish and coughing blood at the cliff-hanger, lose her life? 

And will Jean Valjean—now living under a false identity as a kindly factory owner and mayor—lose his liberty? The ongoing debate about moral philosophy (Does evil exist? Discuss, through gritted teeth) he engaged in with Javert this episode ended with a race to Arras, where a stranger faces a life sentence for Valjean’s crimes. Will he save another’s life by giving up his own?

Les Miserables leant in to its natural pantomime in episode two with the introduction proper of the Thenardiers. As Cosette’s wicked stepmother, Olivia Colman proved herself once again an essential livener to any drama. Her knack for comic expression and Albert Square vowels here brightened up dark scenes of childhood neglect and domestic violence. Adeel Akhtar’s evil Del Boy too, made for more grotesque entertainment.  

Speaking of the grotesque, the carnival wagon scene in which Fantine’s teeth were yanked from her head was an early entry in the Most Toe-Curlingly Horrid Screen Moment of 2019. (However many witchity grub smoothies are regurgitated by former Atomic Kitten members next December, I’m A Celebrity is going to have to go some to outdo the line “Help me hold her still, mother.”) 

There was more bodily pain in Valjean’s flesh-burning by the very coin he stole at the end of episode one. That sort of imagery is the meat of this heavily lessoned drama. Valjean’s episode two story was filled with crucifixes as a reminder of his redemption through the Bishop’s charity. The candlesticks too, not sold but retained as a talisman of Valjean’s moral epiphany, filled the same symbolic function.  

West plays Valjean’s conflicts well, and is all the more convincing without dialogue than when justifying his moral stance to Javert. Not a great deal chattier than he was last week, his scenes involve plenty of tortured prayer and injured looks, both of which West does expertly. Lily Collins is game as Fantine, but feels as though she’s holidaying in the part rather than inhabiting it. Ruffle that crop with some product and she could be drinking a matcha coconut latte in a pop-up cafe rather than expiring in bloody degradation. That said, her encounter with those odious braying toffs was still hideous enough to make you want to set fire to a polo ground. 

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Like any good pantomime, this adaptation’s lessons are all written in fat crayon. There are goodies and baddies, sympathetic beauties and unsympathetic nasties. Subtlety is a foreign language here, but the drama is gripping and its lessons (Cooee! Working parents need flexible hours and accessible childcare) continue to be relevant. 

Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode here