TV Review: Les Misérables

An all-star cast is impressive in Andrew Davies’ TV adaptation of Les Misérables sans la musique

“That man…THAT MAN…”

Les Misérables without the songs? For those inclined to the musical theatre way, it can be easy to forget that Victor Hugo’s novel is considered one of the finest of the 20th century. But for all adaptor Andrew Davies’ huffing and puffing about the musical being a travesty (or at least the film adaptation thereof), something about the suspension of disbelief concomitant with that genre actually allows the epic sweep of Hugo’s storytelling to fly more effectively.

Over six lengthy episodes, Davies and director Tom Shankland do a decent job but it is all a bit dourly relentless and faintly ridiculous. Taken as a whole, Jean Valjean’s story is just batshit and for all Dominic West’s stirring commitment to the part, it’s hard not to go ‘huh?’. Likewise David Oyelowo’s Inspector Javert, his decades-long vendetta against Valjean difficult to sustain over this much coverage to an extent that it is credible, given his reputation as regards the rest of his job.

And in the same way that Marius and Cosette rarely quicken the pulse onstage, so too do Josh O’Connor and Ellie Bamber suffer from a surfeit of blandness in these characters. Erin Kellyman makes the most of the far more interesting Éponine and as her parents, the grasping Thénardiers, Adeel Akhtar and Olivia Colman perk things up with each appearance. There’s nothing subtle about this depiction of life in post-revolutionary Paris (and beyond) and I think this is where Davies’ adaptation suffers the most, unable to draw us in closer to the lead characters’ interior lives.

What does work is the luxury casting for what in so many cases are essentially cameos, given the speed with which we rocket through the years. From the vivid badness of Johnny Flynn’s dastardly but handsome student knocking Fantine up, Ron Cook’s seedy dealer with his collection of dolls with real hair, Kathryn Hunter’s malevolent shop stewart and Anna Calder-Marshall’s lip-licking informant to the essential kindness of Emma Fielding’s governess, Derek Jacobi’s bishop and Georgie Glen’s abbess, there really is an embarrassment of riches which goes a long way to nailing the watchability factor here.

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