It begins in mud, and blood. Soldiers lies scattered on the battlefield, most of them dead, but some still groaning in pain. Through them threads a man, stopping to strip each corpse of its valuables before moving on to the next. The scavenger’s name is Thenardier, which we learn when he tries to remove the watch of a dead colonel, but the colonel is not dead. He mistakes Thenardier for a saviour, and Thenardier is only too eager to take the credit.
So begins Les Miserables, a new six-part series debuting on Masterpiece April 14th. It goes back to the original novel by Victor Hugo for a fresh interpretation of the famous saga, filling in details and expanding characters that were only touched upon by the famous musical. It’s a slow-burn drama in this age of prestige television, but a rewarding one. Dominic West, formerly of The Wire stars as Jean Valjean, the escaped thief who struggles through several iterations to make a new life for himself. David Oyelowo, who played Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, co-stars as Inspector Javert, the guardsman who believes men cannot change themselves, and that Jean Valjean is not worthy of redemption. Oyelowo’s is a stand out performance. His Javert is a compelling character, one not given to doubts, and his pursuit of what he thinks of as justice drives the story.
The series spends a lot of time with Fantine, showing us the details of her relationship with Felix, the rich man who convinces her he loves her, fathers her child, then coldly abandons her. Lily Collins, who plays Fantine, wears her heart on her face, and Fantine’s eventual degradation is rendered all the more poignant because of it.
Adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Tom Shankland, Les Miserables uses modern television storytelling methods to show us an old story in a new way. It’s grounded in detail, revealing post-Napoleonic France as if it were a place we could visit today. Indeed, it was filmed on location in Paris and Belgium.
At its heart, this is a story about the human heart, and the lengths people will go to to survive. It plays with the basic questions: are people who they are because of the things they do, or is there a core of us that is untouched by our circumstances? Is a thief always just a thief? Do our reasons for our crimes matter, or do our actions define us? These are compelling questions, grappled with in a fascinating way.
Les Miserables debuts on Masterpiece Sunday April 14th at 9:00 p.m. on KIXE Channel 9.