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Over the past decade, in the so-called Golden Age of Television, PBS has more than held its own against behemoth streaming services and big networks. It’s scored massive ratings with Downton Abbey, Victoria, and Sherlock, as well as critical acclaim with Broadchurch and Call the Midwife. If the reaction of U.K. critics and audiences is anything to go by, its latest partnership with the BBC, an expansive, glittering adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables, seems poised to carry on the winning streak.
Note again that the drama, which premieres April 14, is based on Hugo’s novel, not the heady musical that audiences know well. So no songs here. Screenwriter Andrew Davies, the man who gave us the brilliant 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth, has over six hours at his disposal. This means the series delves much deeper into the historical background of Hugo’s tale than perhaps any filmed or staged version so far. It also means that in portraying the vice and poverty of revolutionary France, the drama at times goes in grittier directions than some Masterpiece viewers may be used to.
There are pluses and minuses to greater crudity than we saw in the glorious Oscar-winning 2012 film starring Hugh Jackman. The quick flash of Jean Valjean’s whipped, chained bare backside reveals his wretchedness. A brief, gut-wrenching scene that illustrates Fantine’s tragic fall into prostitution feels more explicit than necessary, however. As with the Anne Hathaway version, actress Lilly Collins is fully clothed, but the violation happening to her body is still clear and horrifying.
What’s different is Davies also shows Fantine’s romance with the wealthy Félix. We see her drink, dance, and bask in his sweet words until we actually see the lyric, “he slept a summer by my side,” play out. Though no sex is depicted, Félix and Fantine lounge in bed, sheets barely covering them.
It’s certainly more instructive to see the steps in how Fantine’s dream is turned to shame rather than just the tragic aftereffects. But Davies could have done it without skirting so close to the nudity line. Similarly, though several instances of profanity in the three episodes I screened for review are clearly intended to indicate lower-class criminality (and aren’t worse than what you might hear on any of the big four broadcasters on a weeknight), given the historical setting, they actually jar us out of the moment.
But back to the plus side. Given so much time to work with, the new PBS version is better able to flesh out Hugo’s characters, allowing an even deeper experience of the spiritual themes that have captured Christian audiences for generations.
Olivia Coleman turns in a much more satisfying performance as Cosette’s abusive foster-mother Madame Thénardier than she did in her recent Oscar-winning role in The Favourite. Her husband, Monsieur Thénardier, grows into someone far more layered and threatening than the buffoonish innkeeper we’ve seen before. David Oyelowo’s Inspector Javert also takes on greater complexity. At last we see how he became such an unmerciful legalist.
Without menacing songs or stalking malevolence, it’s clear Javert doesn’t view himself as a villain, any more than we do when we fixate on the sins of others. Oyelowo, a professing Christian who also executive-produced the series, recently put it this way to a U.K. paper: Javert is simply a twisted picture of Old Testament law. What he demands may be just—according to French rulings—yet it is terrible.
The greatest reason to watch, however, is Dominic West as Jean Valjean. Throughout we see little nuances and shades that do so much better to explain his relationships. Why he feels so responsible for Fantine. Why he must struggle so hard not to succumb to Javert’s taunting disbelief that he can ever really be a new creation. Juxtaposed against the one who accuses him night and day, Valjean’s mercy, grace, and self-sacrifice show, once again, that he’s the true keeper of God’s law.