“I always like to trace motivations to sex,” Dominic West, who plays the wronged, reformed hero Jean Valjean in BBC One’s Les Misérables, said recently. “I said to David [Oyelowo, who plays the obsessive police inspector Javert], ‘Javert obviously fancies him!’ But he thought that was crass.”
Crass it may be, but there is an intense, scorching energy between Valjean, who did 19 years of hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread, and Javert, who spent those same 19 years making his life a misery.
In Andrew Davies’s six-part (song free) adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, Javert’s apparent loathing is the surface beneath which a throng of other emotions lurk. “You astonish me,” he says to Valjean at one point in tonight’s second episode, as puzzlement, anger, sorrow and respect flit across his face. I’d compare Oyelowo's subtle, human portrayal of Javert with Russell Crowe’s lambasted performance in the 2012 musical version, but Crowe has suffered enough for his crimes.
As, indeed, has Valjean, who by now has shed the anger that hung like a millstone around his neck when he was first released from prison. He’s come a long way since stealing a bishop’s silverware out of financial desperation, and a little boy’s coin out of world-weary spite, in last week’s episode.
Now, under the new name of Monsieur Madeleine, he is the newly appointed mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, spends his spare time rescuing kids from burning buildings, and owns a factory in which he hires anyone who’s willing to work. That includes a desperate, destitute Fantine (Lily Collins), irrefutably the story’s most tragic figure, even among this troupe of misérables.
Having been abandoned by the father of her child, Felix (a coldly charming Johnny Flynn), she has found herself penniless, having left her daughter Cosette in the not-so-loving care of Olivia Colman’s Madame Thénardier and her exploitative, abusive husband, Adeel Akhtar’s Monsieur Thénardier.
Colman – who is about to graduate from national treasure to Hollywood royalty thanks to her performance in The Favourite – steals every scene she’s in. “It’s a strange thing, but I’ve never been able to take to that one,” she says chirpily of her own son, Gavroche. “I could do anything for me girls, but that nasty little creature don’t bring any maternal instincts out of me at all.”
Nor does her adopted ward Cosette, for whose invented illnesses Monsieur Thénardier demands increasingly unaffordable sums of money from Fantine. When she finds herself dismissed from her job (by Valjean, who will later live to regret it), Fantine's fall from grace is swift and unrelenting. To earn money for her daughter, she sells her hair, then her teeth, then her body. “Why not go and bring your daughter here?” someone asks. “And have her share my wretched life?”
It is wretched indeed, but Lily Collins injects her with just as much steeliness as fragility. At times, Fantine navigates this hell she’s living with grace. At others, with spitting, undignified rage. By the end of tonight’s episode, “she has very little time left on this Earth” – a shame not just for her character’s sake, but because it means the end of Collins’s magnificent performance.
Still, there’s plenty more misery to come. At this point in the musical, we’d still have 38 songs to go.
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