To say that I was in shock after this week’s episode would be a monumental understatement.
Aside from the fact that I have been completely awestruck by Dominic West’s performance throughout the first and second episodes, there have been some tiny details picked up in this third installment which are a testament to the creativity and attentiveness of the screenwriters. The third offering from the beautiful people at the Beeb served to fill in the specifics of Valjean’s adoption of Cosette, something that certainly doesn’t get enough airtime in the musical. In fact, some have suggested that it’s even better than the musical owing to the scandalously gripping scenarios, but that kind of debate is bound to only incur wrath from the community. Keeping the peace, I simply have a few thoughts on how this fantastically staged episode played out.
The episode really serves to develop Jean Valjean’s character and I loved it. Seeing him in the courtroom after the cliffhanger of the second episode, it’s amazing how compelling his performance is, stunning the room into silence when he reveals his true identity. We really get a sense of the ethical dilemma and we feel how he feels — he can see this innocent man’s pain and knows that he has to intervene in order to do the right thing. Here the power-play between himself and Javert really comes into its own: it’s that pit-of-the-stomach moment when Javert closes his eyes and realizes who Valjean is in the courtroom. We can almost tangibly feel the way that he is burdened with the weight of Valjean’s case.
But it’s such a difficult call to make for Valjean! Especially when Fantine is on her deathbed and he’s made a promise to her. That scene is played out tremendously, and following the source material of the book, we see a sickly Fantine clutching at the last straws of hope that her daughter will return to her. Javert appears, and as if things couldn’t get any tenser, Fantine straight up dies! Valjean, under influence of riotously powerful emotions, positively threatens Javert to leave him be — Fantine’s blood is on his hands! Need I say more? Things don’t get much dramatic than this. A comparison might even be made to Greek tragedies like Medea or Antigone – the drama truly reaches operatic proportions.
Back in Montreuil-sur-mer, the Thenardier household was actually violent and raucous, much less comical than the scene that’s so often played for laughs in the musical. Olivia Colman was fantastic as Mme. Thenardier once again, inhabiting the part of a genuinely cruel mistress. Other characters also make an appearance: the doll vendor whose wares Cosette admires happens to be the man who bought Fantine’s hair and took her teeth from her — tragically, not that Cosette would ever know the connection. Yet it seems as if everything came round full circle and Fantine’s love for her child has paid off. There is reason to believe that the screenwriters have taken artistic liberties with the source material, as the man who bought Fantine’s hair back in Paris, never appeared in Montreuil-sur-mer, and was never involved in peddling toys. However, again for purposes of economy, it works, a bittersweet touch linking Fantine and her daughter.
Dominic West (who also appeared as Lord Croft, Lara’s father in the fantastic Tomb Raider earlier last year – at least I thought so), was, in my opinion, absolutely the perfect specimen for Jean Valjean. What I really found intriguing about this episode was the way in which his relationship with Cosette is expounded. While there is a tendency to take for granted his adoption of Cosette, here it’s actually questioned, which shows an impressive insightfulness on the part of the screenwriters. They go about their relationship as a father and daughter tentatively, and rightly so, considering that Valjean hasn’t even mentioned that he knew Fantine and made a promise to find Cosette on her behalf. No, this is far more naturalistic than any of the adaptations I’ve seen before (be it theatre, film or prose) – this way we actually get time to consider his decisions and the consequences of his actions. I love that they slowly begin to trust each other, turning an encounter bourne out of misery and despair into one of mutual love and respect. It’s beautifully told and one almost wishes that Cosette would never grow up so that they would always experience the same happiness together. It’s clear that they adore being with each other, and the paternal element moved me almost to tears. A gorgeous illustration of the love a father – an allegorical Biblical father, if you will – can show towards his child.
It was very well thought-through, I’d say, to have Javert speak to the Thenardiers on the disappearance of Cosette, because it gives his character the space to verbalize the mistrust that surrounds him. To actually have him declare Thenardier as a villain and a scandal among his own neighbors is a really powerful part of the drama – certainly important in cementing the idea of him in our minds. I also love the fact that, when they are forced to repossess their property on the basis of this scandal, the filmmakers have really got the character traits down to a T. Mme Thenardier is about to leave behind her youngest child Gavroche – we know he will become important later, but it’s really shocking (and at the same time, completely unsurprising) that she would lack such a basic maternal instinct. This is proof, if any were needed, that they are heartless creatures, completely lacking in empathy for anyone and anything. It’s a brilliant way of showing their characters, and I felt even better acquainted with their habits, for better or worse, after this episode.
By the end of the episode, everything was balanced on a knife’s edge. As Valjean and Cosette take refuge in the convent, it’s clear that his conscience believes he should be turned in, while in his heart he can’t bear to part with his little girl. One thing that has been changed from the source material is the way in which Valjean and Cosette are able to seek refuge in the convent. Whereas here they are recognized by the nurse who was by Fantine’s bedside at the time of her death, in the novel this gap is bridged by Fauchelevent, who we will remember that Valjean saved from being crushed under his cart earlier in the drama. Rather, we see an all-female ensemble within the convent, which sets things up more coherently for Javert’s confrontation with the Sister. To have Javert and the Sister have a verbal confrontation was a true a battle of the wills — her poker face was absolutely exceptional. Never mess with a nun!
This is quite honestly BBC drama at its finest. It brings to mind Luther, another detective who will stop at nothing to find justice. And Javert this time around was so forceful in his aim, this is a side of him we never see. Usually, he’s oversimplified to a dark, brooding figure with a chip on his shoulder, but here he was a living, breathing, desperately forceful man who felt extreme anger at the situation, even overturning an entire bed single-handedly when his culprit gets away. The sheer power of his acting is phenomenal.
I’ve never really stopped to think about Javert’s area of work as a policeman, the eyes and ears of Paris and the criminal underworld, keeping the city under strict guard. As Boublil and Schonberg’s lyrics tell us, ‘I am the law, and the law is not mocked’. He certainly is the law embodied, absolutely ruthless in his cause. It’s chilling when you see it in the flesh, with adequate time to play out. While he has to behave rationally and impartially, he also experiences deep anguish at the fact that Valjean has escaped his perfect crime-free world. One can imagine Javert was a lonely and legalistic child — in fact, as we know from the source material, he was born in a jail to a prostitute mother, the idea being that he was born in sin and has spent his entire existence trying to compensate for it, living up to unrealistically perfect standards in order to quench the guilt and shame that he believes is a permanent part of him. It’s psychological! It’s complex! And it’s very, very dramatic. Hugo certainly put on an excellent feast for the imagination with his novel, but this adaptation has brilliantly and astutely captured the way in which the epic was meant to make people feel. Utterly gripping, I can’t wait for next week’s episode.