Intense. That’s an apt word to describe all six hours of the new Les Misérables miniseries from BBC and PBS. But intense isn’t a bad thing, not when it translates to potent storytelling that grabs you by the heart and will not let you go. Sumptuous is another descriptor—glorious period costumes and a glowing backdrop of Belgium and France make this piece a feast for the eyes.
Usually, my good husband cheerfully tolerates my yen for “period dramas.” The man has watched his fair share of stories involving brooding heroes in short pants (hello, Mr. Darcy!). In the case of Les Mis, however, he was all in, transfixed by one of the most powerful narratives in literature—but this time without music and dancing.
The no-song-and-dance element works for him, as he always enjoys a play better than a musical. But would it work for me? As a fan of the musical, I wondered how six hours of Les Mis, with nary a person humming “I Dreamed a Dream,” would go.
It went so well, dear reader, that my husband didn’t even look at his phone during any episode, he was that riveted. As was I. With mesmerizing storytelling, a dream cast, and radiant cinematography, this Les Mis is the opposite of miserable.
Although, plenty of miserable things happen; this will never be an upbeat pick-me-up of a story. Yet a golden thread of redemptive hope runs through each of the six hour-long episodes.
Anchored by the masterful performance of Dominic West as Jean Valjean, the show brilliantly and impeccably casts its players. You can’t look away from West as he battles the injustice of hard time in a horrific prison for stealing a loaf of bread; then you can’t look away, period. West’s face expresses more than words, and we as the viewers are aware of his deep sadness, even beneath moments of joy.
Viewers lean in for one of the most deeply Christian scenes in all of literature: Valjean finds rescue and shelter, post-incarceration, in the home of a bishop (Derek Jacobi) whose mercy sets him on the path to redemption. We see ourselves in Valjean’s profound brokenness, and we see Christ in the bishop’s forgiveness and grace.
As West himself says of Valjean in Playbill, “He’s tougher than everybody, he’s kinder than everybody, he’s more generous than everybody and a bigger heart and a bigger hero in terms of the personal demons he’s trying to overcome.” West hits every one of these elements and turns Valjean into a strongly sympathetic, relatable character despite his heroism.
Other standouts in the cast include Lily Collins as an arresting, harrowing Fantine; David Owelowo as an obsessive, simmering Inspector Javert, and Erin Kellyman, whose Eponine is raw, tender, confused, and intensely human, more fleshed out than the musical’s version. With a wonderfully diverse cast, this Les Mis has been given a Hamilton makeover, with energizing effects.
Themes of human rights, poverty, the meaning of life, sacrificial love, and spiritual awakening and redemption simmer throughout the series, making it ideal fodder for personal reflection or even group discussion.
For me, it all goes back to the bishop treating Valjean like a human being, made by and like God, when no one else would or dared to. How radical, how stirring! In viewing this fresh treatment of a classic story, may we also be moved to emulate the bishop, to renew hope, restore grace, and reconcile the lives of our fellow image bearers. (BBC/PBS)