Readers, for the sixth and final(ish) time, welcome back to my review of BBC’s miniseries, Les Miserables – episode 6, part 1. I have so much to say that we’re just going to have to slice this up across two posts…all the more time for deep analysis on Victor Hugo!
Well, it’s certainly been emotional — a cathartic ride through an epic plot spanning a man’s entire lifetime and a generation’s worth of political upheaval, melodrama, and redemptive curves. Let’s not pretend that there haven’t been unintentionally hilarious moments, either — there’s only so much of a soppy Marius I can take seriously. But on the whole, I think it’s been a very capable realization of source material that historically has been squeezed into a quarter of the time.
In episode one, we got backstory. There was betrayal; there was heartbreak all round, as Fantine’s lover Felix abandoned her, Marius’ father created a family rift, and Valjean got out on parole after 19 long years, deeply embittered with the circumstances life has thrown at him. But there was also hope, and redemption, as Valjean turned his life around, and by the second episode, had become almost a completely new man. Well, he might have been, had he not turned Fantine out into the street and into a life of prostitution, illness and eventual death, but hey! He made up for it by pledging to care for her infant daughter Cosette. Meanwhile, Inspector Javert follows Valjean wherever he goes and plans to ruin his life since he’s an immoral man — he just can’t see the change in him.
Episodes three and four were an unraveling of these storylines, with an added sprinkling of Thenardiers — the ruthless family Fantine entrusts Cosette to as a child. They have a connection to Marius’ late father, and now Marius falls in love with Cosette after meeting her once. He now lives next door to the Thenardiers, and the daughter Eponine loves Marius, but it’s an awful love triangle and anyway, the villains are never really villains because everyone has motivations for doing their thing — in short, everyone is slightly confused about everything. By episode five, we’ve successfully stumbled upon a myriad of problems, as everyone wants something they can’t have, Marius is being overly dramatic, and the political tumult starts to take a turn for the worst, leaving angry students to tip over into full-blown revolt. Following all of that, we’re well acquainted with the characters, and the underlying story threading through is that of Javert seeking to bring Valjean to justice, which undoubtedly is the most compelling part of the drama.
I think the words ‘amateur dramatics’ might have some relevance to part six, although in many ways it was a tale of two halves: half leaving me underwhelmed, half brilliantly capturing the spirit of the novel. As much as I’d liked to have bought into the final tragedy of the deaths at the barricade, the dialogue often felt forced and the antics seemed overplayed. How many times is someone going to die in Marius’ arms? In some ways, it’s hard to avoid comparison to the film but we need to remember that TV has its limitations. The scale of the set is something to be marveled at, however, considering the less-than-Hollywood budget and production values, and there was evidence of some brilliant investment in special effects during the barricade battle scenes. I’m just not sure we really get too much of a sense of jeopardy until too late.
Again, I’m not really convinced by the exchange between Javert and Valjean at the barricade, although Javert being set free seems fresh and unexpected, the confusion tangible. At the same time, it’s easy to take pity on Enjolras, the passionate leader of the group: his declaration that ‘we fight for the wretched of the earth, and if we go to our deaths, we go to our deaths with joy!’ seems so pitiful and hollow up against the very real forces of the army they’re pitted against. I’ve always seen him as a heroic figure, but in this adaptation, we get a sense of the shambles that his uprising really is. To top it off, Grantaire really, really bothered me. He seemed to pull together in the end, but his comic buffoonery (sleeping through the entire battle) seemed to undercut the sentiment of the moment, although of course, it’s factually accurate and in keeping with the novel. Again, the score was what really tried to elicit an emotional impact, the tragedy amplified by swelling strings and a double-bowed cello. I do think that, on the production side, things ran smoothly: the screenplay, unfortunately, left something to be desired.
Another difference here is that Marius actually talks to Valjean in the barricade, so initial contact is established which is otherwise left to speculation in the musical. Valjean carries Marius through the sewers. What really worked here were the flashbacks to his previous life — all the accusations and allegations that everyone had ever made against him. Liar. Thief. Scum. Wretched. He raises his eyes and audibly prays — “forgive me!” It’s a touching moment that I didn’t expect: I, probably like many viewers before me, had assumed he’d got on with his life and wasn’t still haunted by the past. He seemed to have it all together as if he hardly needed forgiveness. Safe to say that this elicited the best response from me throughout this episode: the realization that we are all like Valjean, all seeking freedom and redemption in one way or another, and no matter all the good that can appear on the outside, we are looking fundamentally for peace and equilibrium. It’s a very spiritual journey that he undertakes, and one which I think more than compensated for the rest of the lackluster screenwriting.
And, I very much enjoyed the way that Tom Shankland directed the shot of Valjean in the sewer, depicting Valjean at the end of himself. His hand reaches out through barred gates to the moonlight, as if holding out for divine intervention. Instead, he gets Thenardier, and it’s not a welcome exchange since the man is a literal sewer rat and always has been wretched. But the purpose of their exchange is to show that it doesn’t matter who you are: we are all equal and lowly in the end, the rich and poor alike. Thenardier blames Valjean for ruining his life and reputation, saying he was a respected man — but we know from the very opening of the series that he has always been a liar, thief, and crook. I believe Hugo’s message is to show that even if we believe if we’re right by our own standards, we’re all as wretched as each other in one way or another.
Time is played with a little in the final episode. Whereas Valjean typically has one or two interactions with Javert, they were spread out for a better sense of space. Valjean had shown mercy to Javert, setting him free from the confines of the barricade where he was held hostage (it’s a role-reversal situation where the captor becomes the captive). Yet on Javert’s return to the precinct, his exchanges with the other police officers show his iron will and resilience, determination to hunt down Valjean once and for all. I’d never really thought about it, but Valjean tells Javert where to find him — and in other adaptations goes into hiding again. It’s paradoxical. Maybe he wanted to leave his fate in God’s hands rather than Javert’s. Maybe he’d had enough of living under a black cloud.
Equally, later, I can understand why Javert is always so cynical. Every time they have a confrontation, Valjean always has an exit strategy – Fantine, Cosette, Marius. However this time Javert actually bends his law and helps return Marius to his grandfather. Valjean knows it’s the end for him. And Javert is visibly conflicted — he can’t see why Valjean would save someone who could cause him so much pain. One quite human moment is when they talk about this in the carriage — it’s as if the two men are finally becoming acquainted after hating each other and playing cat-and-mouse for so long. This is something that’s perhaps neglected in other adaptations on stage and screen: I’m certain Hugo would have wanted to leave more space for the two men as individuals to talk head-to-head. For me, it’s a pivotal part of the drama and wraps up a lot of the questions I’ve been asking so far. What would they say to each other? What’s the nature of their obsession with truth, justice, and freedom from different ends of the spectrum? And what are the real-life consequences? This was an integral aspect of the drama which I’m really pleased got the coverage it deserved.
(This review will be continued in my analysis of Episode Six: Part 2)