Readers, you are welcomed to the fifth week of Victor Hugo-inspired raving! What’s eerily prescient about this episode is the way in which it echoes the ongoing real-life protests by the gilet jaunes, a French grassroots activist group who have been taking to the streets in an anti-government movement. It’s as if Hugo was a prophet, 200 years ago: from the revolutionary uprising in 19th-century France as depicted in the novel, through to the 1968 Paris riots to today’s politically turbulent climate, it seems as if he foretold an ongoing class struggle. The difference today, of course, is that unrest and murmurs are translated from whisperings into social media posts and shares — nevertheless, people fundamentally haven’t changed and it’s a little coincidental to see these events parallel each other.
Well, now that the action is coming to a crescendo (and it is in the most literal sense of the word, John Murphy’s score was chilling), let’s quickly recap what we’ve learned so far. A lot has happened over five episodes, but all you need to know is this:
Javert is maniacal,
Cosette is impressionable,
Les amis, formidable.
You can see why Cameron Mackintosh, Boublil and Schonberg turned it into a musical. So much easier to remember. But on with the show!
What stands out to me throughout these episodes, really breaking down the source material, is the sheer amount of social commentary written in the subtext of the plot. For instance, Madame Thenardier and her daughters are locked up in jail at the start of the episode, foiled during their surprise attack on Valjean. Seeing the women in jail actually drives home the reality of their hardships too — Hugo’s message is that it’s not their fault they are the way they are. Brilliantly, he actually allows us to experience compassion for even the worst members of society. Olivia Colman’s performance was once again compelling, and for once I was able to think about Madame Thenardier not as an archetype, but as a person. She never asked for this life: all she was doing was raising her family and getting by the only way she could, as best she could with an abusive husband. Now, with the prospect of her daughters being taken away from her, I thought that she was really fleshed out and I actually felt sorry for her.
But the sentiment was soon undercut. The fun really starts when Monsieur Thenardier breaks out of jail, faking death by cholera. The police chasing him unmistakably make a nod to Keystone Cops. This, among many other instances of unintended comedy throughout the episode, provided an antidote to the dense commentary looming beneath the surface.
As mentioned, the real meat of this episode came with the students’ reactions to political events. When Enjolras announces the death of General Lamarque, a vocal advocate for the working classes, they are confronted by reality: the real conflict and social commentary comes from when a local points out that the students have it easy, they can simply run back to their country homes; the real fight is among the poor in Paris. I felt great sadness for their doomed optimism as they chanted the national anthem! Liberty, equality, and fraternity might be strong ideals, but they’re a romanticized version of the truth the students are about to face.
Directly contrasted with these students are the pompous bourgeoisie. Chaired by Marius’s grandfather, Pontmercy, they actively talk down General Lamarque. Whereas the students refer to him as a hero — ‘Lamarque fought for Napoleon, he should be buried in the Pantheon like a hero’ — the wizened old men laugh at his expense. Later in the episode, the real rumblings begin and these polarised communities come head-to-head. At Lamarque’s funeral, there is a fantastic aerial shot showing hordes of working class people and activists of all backgrounds gathering ostensibly to commemorate him — in reality, it’s the start of the revolution.
One really gets a sense of the loneliness of the students’ situation, how vulnerable they are to attack when pitted against the military forces. Yet I couldn’t escape the fact that so much of the cinematography and mise-en-scene was almost directly ripped from the Tom Hooper adaptation, a fact that made this particular installment seem a little hurried through post-production. It’s unfortunate, and not especially indicative of the talents of the filmmakers, who have been able to show their creative mettle brilliantly so far. However, the student barricade sequences were important and, no matter how they came across on screen, made clear that this was a life-or-death fight.
If I’m honest this was the most important part of the story. The Marius-Cosette-Éponine love triangle that happens simultaneously really just bored me. I can appreciate that it needs to be there in order to tie all the plotlines together, but even with the complexity of the novel as it is, I feel like the series perhaps didn’t need to make it so melodramatic. Marius is too often romanticized by the other adaptations as a really perfect hero, but in reality, he’s a sulky, privileged boy who needs to find purpose in life, a rebel without a cause. A drama queen! And I’d be lying if I said that his relationship with the much younger Cosette made me feel uncomfortable. Granted, he is responsible for some of my biggest and unintended laughs in the picture — see for yourself — but on the whole, I was pretty indifferent to their affair.
Spoilers ahead. I won’t go into all the specifics this week, but I do have one suggestion to improve the cinematography. When Éponine gives her life to save Marius, she literally appears and actually verbalizes the words ‘I’m at your feet’ — unfortunately, there’s no getting around lazy writing. Could I have done it better? It’s doubtful. But I might have chosen to sound off a gunshot, Marius looking shocked, then relieved… and finally, slow pan to the left and adjusting the shallow depth of field so that Éponine, wounded and dying in the background, comes into focus. That would have been really dramatic. I’ve made the TV episodic format/economy of time and space argument enough now to want to see better cinematography. But, on the flipside, Tom Shankland has rattled through obscure plot points that no other director has done before him, so credit where it’s due. There is certainly enough excitement as far as the action is concerned, so it’s on an optimistic note that I wrap up this week’s episode. Let’s see what the sixth and final part will have in store.