Review: Les Miserables, Episode Four


Reflecting so far on the miniseries Les Misérables, it’s been a fantastic ride. Jean Valjean has completely turned his life around from convicted felon to mayor and employer of an entire town; afterwards, he makes amends for the demise of his worker, Fantine, and adopts her child as his own. Despite his best efforts, though, he can’t shake the feeling that someone is after him and that his past is — quite literally — coming back to haunt him. Indeed, Javert is on his case, and this ruthless embodiment of legalistic principles will stop at nothing, threatening Valjean’s peace of mind even in his happiest moments with Cosette.

This felt like one of the slowest episodes so far, and it has to be expected with the source material at that volume. But looking back over what happened, it seems as if the slow-burning epic comes to a head when all the plotlines intersect, crescendoing into a climax where we’re reminded not to mess with Valjean. And, at last, the Marius- Valjean- Javert- Cosette- Thenardier stories intersect! Moving on from the completely hilarious commentary offered by the Twitter universe (we’ll gloss over the ‘weirdly sexual’ overtones – I mean, it was 19th century France), here’s how things went down from a Flixist POV.

Opening in the convent several years after the end of the latest episode, we’re with Cosette and she’s beginning to question her sheltered life in the convent. Her friends gleefully chat about their futures, while sadly reminding her that she’s promised to take the veil. The chamber music was sublime, and reflected well the sacred nature of the place she calls home – but somehow for Cosette, it’s not enough.

Valjean’s heart breaks for his daughter! It’s clear that his paternal affection was never going to be enough for her throughout her entire life, but it’s still sad to see that after all the privilege he has afforded her, even rescuing her from an abusive household as a child, that a life without freedom in the world would never make her happy. Considering this, it made me think about the way in which we take our lives for granted and the opportunities and luxuries afforded to us on a daily basis are out of reach for so many.

Importantly, we’re introduced more fully to the character Marius Pontmercy, played by British fixture Josh O’Connor, known most recently for his roles in Florence Foster Jenkins and The Durrells — we Brits have a penchant for televised period dramas, don’t we? No longer a child, Marius has a fortuitous meeting with a passerby in a local church, who happens to reveal the truth about his late father. Marius is thrown into tumult, undergoing a full identity crisis and renouncing his grandfather’s household.

It does seem to stand out as box-ticking (or hoop-jumping, or whatever analogy you prefer) that Andrew Davies’ screenplay incorporates a backdrop of political tumult. You might argue that it’s the inciting incident that propels most of the drama into motion, but in any case, at least it’s included here, albeit in a rather clumsy way. As I’ve said before — TV adaptations are about economy of space, so they’ve had to include it where they can.

Leaving home for good, Marius’ descent into dissipation is somewhat short-lived. He meets the illustrious ABC society: otherwise known as Les Amis de l’ABC, i.e. l’abaisse, French: to lower. Hugo did indeed intend the pun — don’t you just love etymology? But it becomes apparent that after the wiles of Courfeyrac, introducing his naive friend to a brothel for the first time, that Marius is searching for something other than the hollow pursuits of his friends. Equally, the fact that Grantaire, Joly, and company all laugh at the newcomer’s strongly expressed political views shows that things are off to an uncertain start for Marius Of The Strong Opinions.

“I’m no longer a Royalist. I’m a Bonapartist,” he insists. They laugh. “Well, it’s a step in the right direction,” someone sniggers in return.

Indeed, the only one with the same level of conviction as Marius is Enjolras. While Aaron Tveit was a fan favorite and a charismatic performer during the Tom Hooper adaptation, and his character was portrayed by the unforgettable Ramin Karimloo in concert, Game of Thrones’ Joseph Quinn offers a pretty good hack at the iconic centerpiece for the revolution, too. “What could be greater than a king?” someone laughs. “Freedom,” cuts in an icy voice. That’s Enjolras — the only guy at your party still sober and probably brooding over philosophical matters in the corner while everyone else does another round of shots.

Now, one really stand-out part of this installment is The Luxembourg Gardens. This is what we in modern terms would call the ‘meet-cute’, although I’d just about forgotten the borderline creepy age difference between Cosette and Marius. (Tom Shankland cleaned this up by casting an older actress.) Valjean takes Cosette out for a daily walk, and knowing he has to protect his child as well as give her the freedom she craves, he pulls off a smile that is at once sad and thoughtful, pensive. Rather than admit the fact that Cosette is interested in this boy, Valjean instead gets defensive, showing Cosette a passing chain gang of convicted criminals, such as he himself was once. But she doesn’t understand or take pity — he’s forced to further conceal his past from her. Meanwhile, Marius, listless and lost without Cosette (a rebel without a cause?) is swayed towards the impending revolution.

Not only that, but the Thenardiers reappear. Just as crafty as before, they hatch plots to take advantage of the gullible bourgeoise — Valjean and Cosette included. What’s striking about this episode is the way in which Cosette is directly contrasted with Eponine, and how they’ve endured such a reversal of fortune. In the novel (yes, I’m at it again), Cosette was far too young to remember the exact details of the Thenardiers’  household, and it stands to reason that she would have forgotten Eponine’s face. Yet here she’s far more aware of the situation and being confronted by the family again triggers a deeply distressing psychological wound.

I won’t spoil it (maybe I will) but things go downhill and there’s double indemnity — if Valjean is exposed for who he is, Javert (who is everywhere, it seems) will discover him! It will threaten his peaceful way of life! And it gets worse — Thenardier makes a comment about Pontmercy (slingshotting back to the very beginning of the series), Marius lives next door and hears about it, and now he’s in a dilemma because he can’t turn him in to Javert! Simply trying to find out the truth about his identity and his father, he thinks the Thenardiers are a key to this. You can’t blame him for being a lost soul. And to end, there is an absolutely brilliant shot: a split-screen framing between Valjean and Javert is perfectly executed. There are so many layers of drama here that it’s impossible to unpick it all.

The more I write about these episodes and delve into the plot, the more I realize just how formulaic the episodic TV format is, saving up all the best material until last and leaving us hanging on for next week’s episode. Perhaps I ought to be more discerning. Yet, while I’m fully aware of the emotional manipulation the BBC (read as: every TV network) employ to get me addicted to their offerings, at this point I can’t help but get immersed. The story is too gripping. If I were to level criticism at this episode as a whole, I would say that it wasn’t paced quite so well, with the first forty minutes drifting by much too slowly compared to the final quarter of an hour. Nevertheless, it has done a competent job of bringing together each of the four diverging plotlines, a skill in itself, and as the pieces start to come together, I’m getting ready for a thrilling penultimate fixture.

Sian Francis Cox
Sian is Flixist’s UK Editor and has written for sites including Escapist Magazine, Destructoid, and Film Enthusiast.