Digital: LES MISERABLES (2018)

May 2, 2019 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer:  n/a

Extras: n/a

Label:  n/a

Region: n/a

Released:  n/a

Genre:  TV Mini-Series / Historical Drama

Synopsis: Gritty adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel as a multi-part BBC mini-series in which the fates of several characters are intertwined between a dogged inspector and a wanted felon in 1800s France.

Special Features:  n/a




Victor Hugo’s massive 5-volume epic tale of life in France between 1815-1832 was originally published in 1862, and has spawned a blockbuster musical (launched in 1980, staged innumerable times around the world, and filmed in 2012), and many film adaptations and several TV productions, but this 6-part, 2018 BBC mini-series may be the closest to capturing the book’s grit and the horrific suffering of its impoverished characters.

Dominic West (Tomb Raider, TV’s The Affair) is Jean Valjean, a soon-to-be-released prisoner suffering under chains for stealing a loaf of bread. Rather than have faith in the felon’s reform and freedom, tormentor Javert (David Oyelowo) teases him as a pathetic lifetime thief who will return one day into the same shackles, and endure further torment until death.

With few coins in his pocket and just the clothes on his back, Valjean nevertheless manages to travel through villages, and although he initially succumbs to the echoing taunts of Javert and steals both money from a child and two silver candlesticks from a benevolent priest (Derek Jacobi), he soon returns to the scene of the bigger crime and repents, and is given a second chance at freedom, which he uses to build a new life as a town’s benevolent, fair-minded employer.

Running parallel to Valjean’s saga is Javert’s career upgrade from prison chef to dogged inspector, with a steely determination to hunt down Valjean when he discovers proof of robbing a child; seamstress Fantine (Lily Collins) whose affair with an upper class twit yields a daughter; scoundrel Thenardier (Adeel Akhtar) who aggrandizes his ‘saving’ the life of a French officer at Waterloo, and uses his fabricated heroism to set up a small inn with his wretched wife Madame Thenardier (Olivia Colman); and Marius Pontmercy (Josh O’Connor), the son of the soon-to-die Waterloo officer, who falls for Fantine’s daughter Cosette (Ellie Bamber) after a chance meeting as teenagers.

Distilling the complexity of Hugo’s saga even for a multi-episode series is no easy feat, and yet Andrew Davies (a veteran of translating literary biggies to TV) manages to stitch together key scenes as time markers and anchors for the major interactions involving Valjean, as he ages from a scarred yet strong-shouldered prisoner to local hero, and whose moral code to remain faithful to a higher power leads to further suffering in spite of best intentions.

Lives are only momentarily saved, joy is fleeting, safety is never assured, and degrees of cruelty are massive, especially the fate of poor Fantine, who does everything she can to send money to the couple charged as guardians for baby Cosette. What befalls a desperate Fantine when she’s lost everything becomes an excruciating montage of torment which the series’ makers don’t exploit, but through selective dramatizations, ensure is never forgotten.

Those wholly unfamiliar with the events within the novel or prior long-form films & mini-series may find Hugo’s story to be steeped melodrama, but it’s exquisite melodrama, with twists, betrayals, near-misses, and cliffhanger finales akin to a nail-biting serial.

West and co-star Oyelowo (Selma, United Kingdom) co-produced the series, and Tom Shankland’s deft hand at bleak drama (he directed the ultimate anti-Happy Christmas tale, The Children) steers the leads to a marvelous series of confrontations; Valjean and Javert’s weirdly balletic, near-encounters punctuate the awful events that entwine these two men and their respective fates.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the production is the multi-ethnic cast, each of whom shines in their respective roles: Akhtar (The Big Sick, Unforgotten) steals scenes for his marvelous portrayal of a conniving, greedy bastard, as does Colman (The Night Manager, The Crown), whose Madame Thenardier clearly loves her husband and kids, but has little qualms in slapping or bleeding them if necessary.

Oyelowo plays Javert as a man whose life is locked to a handful of beliefs and goals, and when Valjean fails to follow the clichéd life of a career crook, little by little, Javert loses his sense of purpose, culminating in a taut denouement.

Evil and abuse is never wholly punished, as evident with Marius’ grandfather Gillenormand (David Bradley), a horrible person who nevertheless loves his grandson in spite of several delusions of family fidelity.

The locations and period décor are superb, and the use of CGI to recreate rural villages and old Paris are very smooth, and never grandiose. John Murphy’s intimate score relies on careful, precise theme iterations and variants to support the suffering, as well as the greed among the rich and the repulsive Thenardiers, and Valjean’s obsessive fear of hunter Javert.

His handling of Fantine’s penultimate suffering is very delicate, and both composer, writer, and director rely in no small part to Hugo’s plotting which make Fantine a victim of caste and circumstances; her trusting of souls who betray her at critical moments is Fantine’s greatest flaw, rather than sheer ignorance.

If and when this BBC production makes it to Blu-ray on this side of the pond (a British Region B was released in February), it should benefit from the HD presentation, and hopefully come with a few supportive extras, and perhaps as a tangential bonus, spawn the uncut release of the 1978 Emmy-nominated teleplay starring Anthony Perkins (Javert) and Richard Jordan (Valjean), with a script by John Gay (Soldier Blue, Captains Courageous, Blind Faith).

Victor Hugo’s novel was adapted into silent films in 1909, 1912, 1913, 1917, 1922, 1923, and 1925. Sound versions include 1931, 1934-1935, 1937, 1943, 1948, 1952, 1957, 1961, 1967, 1982, 1995, and 1998 productions. Short distillations, teleplays, and mini-series include broadcast versions in 1949, 1952, 1953, 1958, 1964, 1967, 1970, 1972, 1973, 1978, 1981, 1988, 2000, 2007, 2014, and 2018.

Andrew Davies’ prior big book mini-series include House of Cards (1990), Pride and Prejudice (1995), Wives and Daughters (1999), Bleak House (2005), Mr. Selfridge (2014), and War and Peace (2016).

Also available from is a podcast interview with composer John Murphy, who discusses scoring the period mini-series and crafting his memorable themes.



© 2019 Mark R. Hasan





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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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