(This review is a continuation of my analysis of Les Miserables, Episode Six, Part 1.)
The real turning point of episode six, for me, came about midway through. Although I emphasize that I know and love the plot of Les Mis, I genuinely didn’t anticipate Shankland’s decision to frame Javert the way he did, deciding to set Valjean free. To quote a fellow police officer: “ Was it an act of clemency?” No – “an act of madness.” It’s truly chilling and must be seen to be believed. I love this because we so often see Javert as a faceless villain, but now it comes down to the fact that his convictions were so deep. He literally cannot even express the effect Valjean had on him. Ironically Javert holds his single act of mercy against himself — he’s commited it but can’t ever fully grasp or understand why. He also writes a set of edicts ensuring that prisoners’ wellbeing is better looked after and they’re no longer treated as inhuman any more, which is a completely new take on his character and something that physically manifests his desire to change. Indeed, I believe that David Oyelowo gives one of the strongest performances of the whole series during these mere ten minutes of screen time — the breadth of his emotion, without having to always spell it out through dialogue, is what shines the brightest here.
I’d almost wish that the whole epic had ended with Javert, but a few loose ends are tied up first. Following the barricade, Marius and his grandfather are reconciled: the trauma has set the old man right and shown him that he can express himself without the need to hide behind the vacuous banter of the bourgeoisie. And actually, Marius is the first person that Valjean confides his pain in. A gut-wrenching moment, this was a standout performance. He’s so humble about it. Yet he also admits that he went to the barricade to kill Marius and keep Cosette for himself! Hold up — did we really get sucked into believing that Valjean was an honest man after all? That he’d left behind his capacity for evil? “I don’t belong to the family of men”, he laments — I’m beginning to think that perhaps this is true. And Marius’ reaction is markedly dumbfounded. This is like watching a whole different story! To top it off, it was heartbreaking that he has to let go of his little girl. He doesn’t attend Cosette and Marius’ wedding; he just walks away. (Cue ugly crying.)
I have to say that the Thenardier plotline was wrapped up in a way that surprised, shocked and touched me. As Marius says, ‘You came here to ruin a man, and instead, you crowned him with glory’ — and Marius, seeing that Thenardier only needs a livelihood, figuratively kills him with kindness. To me, it says that kindness is the antidote that ends a multi-generational cycle of suffering. I never thought that I would have had compassion for Thenardier, but at this moment, I did. That’s a real feat for a character so wretched, but then, if Shankland hadn’t perceived this from the novel and chosen to adapt accordingly, the entire adaptation would have been futile. It’s a beautiful message and cuts through all the grim realities that each of the characters has to live through.
At the end of it all, Valjean is out trying to live an honest life. He’d suddenly much older, isolating himself from everyone and everything in the countryside where he first headed as a newly freed prisoner. He believed he’s not worthy of anyone’s love, but as Cosette finds him and assures him of he contrary, it seems as if the shackles that bound him internally are finally let loose and he genuinely becomes a free man for the first time in his life. Even the hardest of hearts will find it difficult not to be moved by the old man reflecting on his life, seeing that the compassion that he has always tried to direct towards others is suddenly brought back and shown to him. It may seem controversial, underwhelming, but I enjoyed the way that he, Cosette and Marius played out a final scene together. It was an intimate, understated and, in my opinion, pitch-perfect scene, telling us all we needed to know within the space of a few short minutes.
Unlike previous adaptations, Shankland chose to end his saga with two young street urchins, begging on the streets of Paris. Here, we see the wretched of the earth — it’s not a bright and jolly ending as the musical would have you believe. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. On one level it might seem sad, knowing that despite Valjean’s efforts, despite the desperate attempts of the students who gave their lives for political change, poverty and injustice continues to reign. But on another level, it shows the reason for the source material — to expose the plight of the poorest in society, calling us to action to do something about it, preventing the cycle from repeating itself. In this way, it’s a very powerful message and reveals that the adaptation had a real social conscience.
Summing up, that’s really what we’ve learned from this endeavor. If you’ve been brave or mad/bored/insane enough to come along with me on this ride, I thank you wholeheartedly for your patience and commitment. Over the course of about 8000 words (yes, a dissertation’s worth), we’ve explored some very deep themes and compiled nothing short of a love letter to Victor Hugo. I’ve particularly enjoyed Dominic West’s portrayal of Jean Valjean since he often left a lot unsaid and more fully rounded-out the character. Whereas Hugh Jackman’s or even Alfie Boe’s impersonation of the character has had tendencies to overdo the heroic element, West’s was much more sensible to the character’s past and had me believe by the end that he truly wanted to become an honest man. Likewise, in David Oyelowo’s portrayal of Javert, I saw a human side to the inspector that has so often been relegated to the sidelines. The final episode for me epitomized his moral struggle and while it’s been sung about and romanticized so often, here it became an issue of real consequence.
As I’ve said, Shankland’s efforts have been imperfect in many ways. I believe the portrayal of Fantine and many of the subordinate characters could have been made so much more effective had they lost their unbecoming accents and acted more in accordance with their characters, but I do think this was more of a screenwriting issue than anything else. It’s certainly no small task to compile a 1200-page novel into six hours’ of screentime, so it’s inevitable that smaller details will not always get the attention they deserve. That being said, many minor details — the Waterloo sign at the Thenardiers’ inn, the conversation between Marius’ father and the nurse, even the sibling comradery between Eponine, Azelma and Gavroche — were very welcome additions and ensured that audiences of all backgrounds could understand the full backstory of the manifold characters. For an adaptation that spanned so many years and historical events, to be able to have relevance in the modern day (from the parallel to the modern Parisian gilets jaunes to the enduring storyline of individuals trying to make a living and find happiness) was really quite an achievement.
On the whole, this miniseries had a lot to offer, and I’m pleased to have seen some of the excellent performances. While no adaptation is perfect, and there have been some glaring faults, the idea here was to capture the redemption of Jean Valjean, which it did splendidly. As the novel infamously ends:
‘He sleeps. And although so much was denied,
He lived; and when his dear love left him, died.
It happened itself, in the calm way
That in the evening night-time follows day.’
All we need now is an adaptation in the original language to more fully capture what Victor Hugo was trying to say. Guess I’d better go brush up on my French.