Les Miserables episode 4 review: parental woes and a killer fight

Valjean proves himself a nineteenth century superhero in the latest action-packed episode of Les Miserables. Spoilers…

This review contains spoilers.

Kids. Who’d have ‘em? No sooner have you fulfilled your promise to their dying mother by rescuing them from a life of loveless cruelty and depositing them safely in a convent, than the ingrates start asking to “see the world”. What Cosette—now a young lady played by a well-cast Ellie Bamber—really needs to see is episodes one to three of this adaptation. Then she’d happily attend vespers or play the piano in a nice parlour, counting herself lucky she’s not being violated under a bridge for a few sous, or whipped and shackled marching to a prison hulk.

Speaking of hulks, what a fight scene! That’s two action-heavy closing scenes in a row. 19th century European novels generally having a greater preponderance of assembly balls and inheritance subplots than punch-ups, it was a rare treat. Andrew Davies may have a reputation for spicing up literary classics with wet chemises and visible nipples, but here, he and director Tom Shankland have foregrounded the muscle. Jean Valjean? Non. Jean-Claude Val-damn. With one hand tied to a table, our hero picked off Thenardier’s goons (who, as goon union regulations insist, lined up to fight him one at a time) before once again evading Javert’s grip. 

Javert is fast becoming the Wile E. Coyote of Les Misérables, driven by the devil to catch his foe but continually bested by his absurd escapes. First it was the hidden file and faked drowning, then the rope over the convent wall, and this week: the window sill. Next time, see Valjean run to freedom through the tunnel trompe l’oeil Javert has painted on a tenement wall, only for him to be knocked unconscious when he tries to follow.

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Dominic West – the spine, heart and brawn of this adaptation – is just as convincing as a strongman as he is a man in pain. Episode four saw him in a great deal of that, and not just courtesy of the hot poker. Cosette’s desire for worldly experience gave her adopted father the permanent expression of a man who’s taken his kids to see PAW Patrol live: a deafening vortex of dread beneath every forced smile. She twirled around in her fine new gowns, and all he could see was a beloved pork chop about to be gobbled up by the world.

One volunteer for that task is the greatly lengthened Marius Pontmercy (now played by Josh O’Connor). Once Marius had been apprised of the facts about his father thanks to the efforts of a charitable onlooker (Donald Sumpter), he told his royalist grandpapa where to stick his king. For that, he was duly kicked out of home, but luckily, one of Paris’ four other buildings had room for him. (It only needs four, as there are no more than sixteen people in the city, all of whose lives are complicatedly interwoven, at any one time.)

The Gorbeau tenement (the very same at which Valjean and little Cosette lodged after leaving Montfermeil) is likely built on the site of a space-rift, such is its pull to the characters of Les Misérables. Where else should the Thenardiers reside but there, in the neighbouring hovel to young Marius? Contrivance is to this story as fleas are to a Parisian rat.

Time hadn’t mellowed the dastardly Thenardier (the nastily brilliant Adeel Akhtar), no longer an innkeeper but every inch the swindler, still watering down the beer of life. Youthful revolt being the theme of episode four, his daughter Éponine (the similarly well-cast Erin Kellyman. The casting in this adaptation is extremely solid) rebelled against family tradition by actually having a heart. She’s given it to Marius, not that he wants it. And so a doomed love triangle begins.

Just more doom to add to the sum pile, the way Valjean sees it. “Lies, violence, cruelty, that’s the world,” he told Cosette, but it didn’t dent her optimism. Even the tableau of wretchedness she encountered on her journey from convent to well-appointed new home didn’t convince Cosette that she was better off becoming a bride of Christ. She’s set her sights on being a bride of Chris, or Pierre, or Robert. Or Marius, the revolutionary. Whomever she chooses, the separation will likely break her papa’s poor heart. That’s if Javert, helped by that creature Thenardier, doesn’t get there first.

Can we really stand more misery befalling that kind, sweet man? Given the dread world outside, couldn’t the BBC rejig the next two episodes and rebrand it as Les Happy Petites Bunnies instead? We’d thank them for it.

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Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode here.