“The ground we walk on, we could fall though at any time and nobody would care.” That’s Fantine (Lily Collins) and her friends near the start of BBC One’s Les Miserables. It’s a sentiment that will ring true with many people working hard at the bottom of Britain’s social ladder today, and it’s that relevance that makes the new drama a gripping watch. Les Mis? Isn’t that the one with the singing? Not here, it isn’t: written by Andrew Davies, this six-part adaptation skips over the stage musical and goes back to Victor Hugo’s epic novel to delve into the layers of social inequality, moral outrage, political revolt and human collateral.
The latter is front and centre in the impressive opening hour, which introduces us to both Fantine and Jean Valjean. The former is swept off her feet by Felix (played with suave confidence by Johnny Flynn), whose band of scurrilous gentlemen treat her and her friends to lavish food and extravagant dates, before abandoning them and leaving Fantine to deal with the aftermath. It’s the start of a tale that you’ll already know, presuming that you’ve seen the musical or its 2012 film adaptation, but whether you’re familiar with her tragic fate or not, it’s unlikely you’ve seen this before. Rather than simply rehash the story we’re used to, Davies takes his time to bring each character’s back-story to life, bringing fresh grit to a portrait of post-Napoleonic France, which is slowly being built brick by emotional brick.
Jean Valjean, for example, is mostly known to us as the prisoner set free after being jailed 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread – an incredulous plot point that’s likely to raise a laugh when briefly mentioned in the musical. Here, though, we serve that sentence alongside him, watching prisoner 24601 as he labours, waits and hopes for release. It’s a brutal montage, acted with intensity by Dominic West, so by the time he’s allowed to bellow his name to the countryside, it means something. The always-brilliant David Oyelowo, too, seizes the chance for his lawman, Javert, to have more screentime, as he positions himself not only a determined keeper of the rules, but an often cruel one too; even as someone who could have become a criminal, after being born in far from ideal circumstances, he operates under the assumption that he’d still be a better criminal than those he watches over.
Hearing all this without songs is a strange experience to get used to, but what this handsomely mounted production manages to achieve is to capture the same epic heights and lows of these characters’ lives, but without descending into melodrama or hysterics. You won’t hear the people sing, but this is undeniably stirring stuff.
A lot of that is thanks to the cast, who are as straight-faced as they come – right down to Adeel Akhtar as Monsieur Thénardier, who we see in the aftermath of Waterloo raising bodies and running for his life (a sombre introduction to someone who will soon be a figure of comic relief). West, complete with great, big, busy beard, is wide-eyed with apoplectic ambition – slowed down only by the soothing kindness of a bishop (played with a knowing smile by a delightfully understated Derek Jacobi) – while Oyelowo is wonderfully imperious, and Collins is fragile but resilient as the young waif. The promise of seeing this impressive line-up being joined by Olivia Colman (as Madame Thénardier) and Josh O’Connor (as Marius) is one to relish in future instalments.
The whole thing is directed by Tom Shankland (The City and the City, Luke Cage and The Punisher) with grounded realism, sweeping sentiment and an eye for both the wealthy and the poor, and, more importantly, the contrasts between them. There is grime and spines aplenty in this tough underclass of the French capital, but there’s hope, too – of a better life, of others actually noticing when the ground they walk on falls through. As this adaptation digs into new details and plumbs renewed despair, we only know two things for certain: the ground will fall through, and you’ll find it impossible not to care.
Les Miserables is available on BBC iPlayer until December 2019.