Les Misérables (Shankland, 2019)

In the Spring of 1982, I switched sections of my high-school English class. Bored by the lackadaisical pace of American educational learning and being (I realize in retrospect) a bit of a smart-ass, I unsurprisingly found myself on the wrong side of my teacher’s good graces. So when I complained a bit too loudly that I had just finished reading Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny in my previous class, she dove into a never-opened-in-our-lifetime supply closet and emerged with a book thicker than many an Egyptian sarcophagus covered in more dust than was on the entire set of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. It had a plain mustard cover with no illustrations or adornments. Beneath that faded cover, the print was telephone-book small, and there were over a thousand pages of it. She blew a few of the dust-bunnies conscientiously off the tome and handed it to me along with a stack of purple-inked mimeographed worksheets consisting primarily of quote identifications. Each worksheet gave about twenty sentences; the student had to summarize where each occurred in the novel and why it was significant.

This was, I assume to this day, meant to be a punishment of some sort, but it was a bit like grounding a science geek in the Smithsonian or locking an art lover in the Uffizi and telling her she couldn’t come out until she had correctly named all the paintings hanging that were drawn in the same year as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Then again, maybe my teacher was smarter than I knew. High-school teachers usually are.

Needless to say, it was glorious. I read the whole darn thing from cover to cover, was sad when it was done, and learned, among other things, that when it comes to great art, more is never, ever, ever, ever, ever a punishment.

It was roughly six and one-half years later that I headed up to New York City as a newlywed to catch Les Miz (as the hipsters called it) on Broadway. It, too, was glorious, but perhaps because of my early exposure to Hugo’s magnum opus I’ve never resented other cinematic versions of the tale. (To this day, my favorite remains Raymond Bernard’s three-part adaptation released in 1934.)

It is undoubtedly the scope of Hugo’s story that makes me tolerant of new retellings. The Broadway version is magnificent, but it is distilled, and one of the great pleasures of PBS’s six-hour miniseries is being reminded of backstories and character development either long forgotten or (for the unread) not yet discovered. It might be a shock, for instance, to see Jean Valjean steal a sou from a poor boy after he is shown grace by the film’s pious bishop (Derek Jacobi). We see Marius’s father, a fighter for Napoleon, turned out by his own monarchist-loving dad without being allowed to see his child. In the theatrical musical, Fantine is already impoverished and penitent when we meet her. Here, she is not yet pregnant, and haughtily rejects cautions that her suitor may be anything less than sincere. Such scenes, understandably cut in the musical, give us deeper insight into characters we thought we knew.

The PBS series also casts David Oyelowo as Javert to Dominic West’s Valjean. The racial inversion is admittedly apocryphal, but it lends power and poignancy to Javert’s speeches emphasizing how similar he and Valjean are, which are not. West is listed at IMDB as 1.83 meters (just about six feet), so my one concern is that he lacks the hulking status that is one of Valjean’s trademarks. We do see his strength on display on the chain gang when Valjean lifts a beam to save a crushed officer from near-certain death. Mostly, though, the script calls for West to express the intensity of Valjean’s anger rather than let it simply smolder.

That intensity takes some getting used to, but redemption stories are always more powerful if the transformation is slower. The series, particularly Episode One, goes out of its way to show how Valjean’s victimization continues after he is released, fanning that anger whenever it might subside.

Les Misérables follows the recent trend of filming historical dramas in lush, pastoral outdoor settings. I was always taught that high-key lighting was associated with comedies and musicals and those used to muted, washed-out colors that predominate in theaters these days may feel as though they are looking at a painting come to life. It’s not a distraction, exactly, but at times the images feel too staged. The opening scene, for instance, with an aerial shot of the carnage at Waterloo, is too horribly pretty to engender true horror.

But the story’s the thing, and here it has room to breathe, It develops slowly. presenting the characters as though they are stuck in this world rather than passing through it. That stuck-ness helps us better understand the degree of hope at the nascent revolution and the amount of disillusionment at its failure to usher in the long-promised world of justice.

Les Misérables will be available on DVD beginning May 21st.

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