Les Misérables review, episode 3: Unyieldingly bleak but hard to look away from

Lily Collins offers a harrowing performance as Fantine, while Dominic West delicately navigates Valjean’s internal battle between compassion and barely suppressed rage

Alexandra Pollard
Sunday 13 January 2019 23:00
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Les Misérables BBC adaptation trailer

Lily Collins filmed Fantine’s harrowing final gasps, finally taken in tonight’s third episode of Les Misérables (BBC1), on day two of shooting the six-part drama. Her character had not yet frolicked in the forest with the beguiling cad Felix (Johnny Flynn), nor walked arm in arm with her Parisian friends. She hadn’t been dumped by Felix, duped into leaving her daughter Cosette with the recklessly abusive Thenardiers, or been taken in, and then cast out, by Jean Valjean / Monsieur Madeleine (Dominic West). “I had just come directly off another film,” recalled Collins, “and I came to Brusells and it was like: ‘Nice to meet you, here’s your death bed.’”

All of which makes Collins’s performance as the wronged, dying Fantine even more impressive. In Fantine’s broken death rattle, and in her desperate pleas to be reunited with her child, you can feel the weight of a lifetime of injustices – even if Collins hadn’t actually filmed any of them yet. In fact, the only thing that threatens to detract from the sombre atmosphere is the nurse’s frankly ludicrous (though I’m sure historically accurate) cornette headwear.

For his part, West delicately navigates Valjean’s internal battle between compassion and barely suppressed rage. He’s just been forced into confessing to a petty past crime in order to save an innocent man’s life, and arrives back in town in handcuffs, much to the shock and dismay of the locals (for some reason, all the crowd mutterings are in French – which works OK until someone actually has a line, and breaks out into blimey guv’nor Cockney). He was supposed to be bringing Fantine’s young daughter to her death bed, but he left that task in the hands of his conniving, contemptuous employee, Madame Victurnien (Kathryn Hunter). To absolutely nobody’s surprise, she did no such thing.

When Fantine finally shuffles off this mortal coil, Valjean's guilt-ridden grief makes for profoundly affecting viewing. He is at once undone and resolute. Consider the line he utters to a stunned Javert (David Oyelowo): “I advise you to stay away from me for a moment.” In lesser hands, it would be unremarkable, but West's delivery – vacillating between a roar and a whisper – is so sad and unexpected that it alone should see him showered with awards.

Two years later, having escaped from prison by faking his own death (he is nothing if not resourceful), Valjean tracks down Cosette, still being sorely mistreated by the Thénardiers (Olivia Colman and Adeel Akhtar, world class actors playing pantomime villains). In perhaps the first act of kindness Cosette has seen in years, he buys her a doll from the same tradesman to whom Fantine sold her hair and teeth years earlier. The fact that her new doll might well have her dead mother’s hair on its head is both touching and deeply, deeply creepy.

After Valjean pays the Thénardiers a tidy sum to rescue Cosette, it seems the pair might finally be able to live the good, quiet life they deserve. But it is not to be. Soon, Javert is on his tale again. At this point, his dogged determination to track down Valjean is as confusing as it is frustrating.

Still, at least he spares a moment to have the Thénardiers arrested. It says a lot about the unyielding bleakness of this drama that Madame Thénardier’s attempt to abandon her own son provides a moment of light relief.

But as grim as Les Misérables is, its slowly unfolding, interwoven tragedies are so well told that it’s hard to look away.

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