Welcome back! After last week’s pilot, I’m really glad to say that the BBC adaptation of Les Misérables is soaring. Thanks to the enduring patience of Flixist’s US writers, who have given me free reign to cover whichever quirky British TV programmes take my fancy (I’m sure they’ll change their minds eventually), here are a few thoughts on the next episode from ‘fancy PBS’.
The second installment was, I thought, everything that a series should hope to achieve. It gave a considerable amount of time and space to character development: no longer just a figment of a song, a passing lyric or part of a choreographed musical number, they became three-dimensional people. Fantine leaves Paris with her (admittedly now much older?) daughter Cosette, searching for work at Montreuil-sur-Mer, and on the way has a chance encounter with Mme. Thernadier – none other than Olivia Colman! Fresh in our minds from last night’s Golden Globes, she brings individual charisma to the part and a maternal instinct that we don’t really get to see in theatrical versions.
It’s pleasing to see that, as well as Éponine, the other Thenardier offspring are introduced – Azelma and Gavroche included. Whereas the Gavroche/Éponine bond isn’t always addressed (he’s usually the street urchin running amok in revolution-era Paris), it’s good to see them as part of the family unit. Well, a dysfunctional one – Thenardier actually turns violent, shedding a whole new light on their situation and changing the dynamic of his marriage for the worse.
A well-observed detail is the signage on the front of their inn depicting a war veteran carrying a wounded soldier. Mme. Thenardier enjoys the illusion that her husband was the heroic figure, yet our knowledge that he’s been a scoundrel from the beginning helps to create a deeper sense of foreboding. We know that this isn’t going to be quite the family home Fantine expects it might be.
Young Marius is also present, and his Royalist grandfather takes great pleasure in parading him in front of wealthy bourgeoisie friends, ensuring that the boy is well-versed in political rhetoric. However, we see a kinder side to the family, when Colonel Pontmercy (Marius’ father) lies on his deathbed, bestowing the title of Baron to his son. As will become apparent in later series, this is something Marius grows to loathe; however, as a child, he is only aware that this father was a war hero and that this great legacy has been marred by the narrow-mindedness of family politics.
While we’ve yet to see the convergence of this plotline with those happening simultaneously, it’s good to keep Marius’ story in the present. This is an episode of the plot that certainly doesn’t get coverage in the musical, owing to the fact that, with limited running time, the details can seem redundant. However, I think it’s important that it’s given the opportunity here because it makes the looming socio-political commentary much more relevant to the characters’ lives, rather than just a historical backdrop.
The episode also went deeper into the life of Jean Valjean, now Pére Madeline, the Mayor of Montreuil-sur-mere, and showed how his fate becomes inextricably entwined with Fantine’s. I thought it was very realistic to see him hesitate and offer a laconic speech when awarded the honor of Mayor; the past still tangibly weighs on him and even his success hasn’t granted him the freedom he desires. He is doing well for himself, though, and hires Fantine as part of his staff. If I were to level criticism at this part of the episode, I would say that he seems much too wary of her, when he has no need to be. Obviously, this short encounter has been staged in order to set up the later conflict with the discovery of Cosette, but it showed a different side to Monsieur Madeline than has been previously explored.
Not only that, but soon enough Inspector Javert is back in the picture, only in this adaptation he is much more astute, convinced from the beginning that he knows Monsieur Madeline’s true identity. When after he discovers that another man has been mistaken for Jean Valjean, the tension tangibly builds. Suddenly, as he accosts Monsieur Madeline (give me the willpower not to sing about their confrontation), I genuinely felt like that was where the episodic format came into its own. This passing thought in every other adaptation was here given leave to fully manifest into a serious ethical crisis. If Valjean doesn’t reveal who he is to the court, his name is cleared forever and he can live without fear of Javert or another conviction, but an innocent man’s blood would be on his hands. On the other hand, if he admits his true identity, he reveals himself as a liar both to Javert and to the community of an entire town who rely on him for their livelihoods. It’s truly gripping. The score makes a fantastic addition, really emphasizing Valjean’s critical state.
What’s absolutely heartbreaking about this episode is the way that Fantine is forced to debase herself and sell everything that she has – and everything that is part of her – purely because of the blackmail of the Thenardiers. Fantine is condemned for her situation: where the law should be upheld to protect the most vulnerable in society, instead it’s condemning them. Again, it’s a characteristic Hugo indictment of laissez-faire attitudes towards the poor, the wounds seeming much more caustic in the drawn-out episodic format. I know we’ve seen it before, but here Lily Collins’ performance is so convincing that I wonder why I haven’t felt this much sympathy for Fantine before now.
This second episode has proven that this adaptation has employed some seriously engaging scenarios and that the direction, which took a while to warm up, has settled nicely into a steady running pace. The observation of minor details and the quality of the performances (particularly from Dominic West, Olivia Colman, and Lily Collins) has transformed otherwise well-known icons into well-rounded people, which gives me great confidence for the anticipated third fixture.