PBS “Les Misèrables” shines in a six-part series
“MASTERPIECE: LES MISÈRABLES”
Blu-ray, DVD; 2018; TV-MA for mature subject matter, violence, gore, mild profanity and nudity; streaming via Amazon Video/Prime, Google Play, iTunes, PBS, Vudu
Best extra: A collection of short features
CAN A poor man ever work his way out of poverty? Unlikely, according to French author Victor Hugo.
His “Les Misèrables” has never been out of print since its publication in 1862, just prior to American’s Civil War. France has just concluded its own civil war; Napoleon has been defeated leaving the monarchy in charge again. The clash between rich and poor – protagonist Valjean is arrested for stealing a loaf of bread – is back in charge. The story of this ex-convict, his ward and the police officer who pursues him, has been adapted for stage and screen dozens of times. The message is timeless; as long as there is social injustice and poverty in the world, this story will have meaning.
Most everyone is familiar with the musical version made into film in 2012. The latest 2018-19 six episode PBS mini-series shown on Masterpiece expands the story. "What normally is only given in a song lyric gets to actually be a full episode. We really dive into the backstories of certain situations, experiences, and characters," says Lily Collins, who plays Fantine, in “The Cast on the Musical,” found at PBS.org.
Dominic West, who plays Jean Valjean, says he also loves the musical. Valjean is “one of the great superheroes of world literature. He did 19 years hard labor and was the toughest guy in jail. When he came out … he dedicates the rest of his life to being a good man. The problem is he is pursued by his ex-jailer, Javert,” he says in “Meet the Cast and Characters.”
The relentless Javert, played by David Oyelowo of "Selma" and "Nightingale," was born in prison. "He could have become a criminal," he says. “But at some point in his life, Javert chooses the path of, as he sees it, righteousness. Jean Valjean represents grace, redemption, seeking forgiveness. Javert represents retribution, and he doesn't believe people are redeemable."
Javert’s pursuit of Valjean, as most know, is the meat of the story. Fantine is “the pinnacle of light,” Collins says. Although she meets a tragic end, her grace continues in the form of her daughter, Cosette played by Ellie Bamber as a young adult, and Mailow Defoy as a child. One of the pleasures of the PBS miniseries is seeing more of Fantine’s story. There are several differences between the miniseries and other staged/film versions. The expanded story is great, but some have objected to actors of color, such as Oyelowo and Adeel Akhtar as the manipulative Thénardier, being cast in roles usually played by white actors. Europeans seem to have fewer issues with ethnicity. Isn't it time to embrace talent of all races? All of the actors are remarkably good here. Recent Oscar winner Olivia Colman plays Madame Thénardier.
Whether new to “Les Misèrables” or an old fan, it gives us plenty to enjoy. This is, after all, a PBS/Masterpiece production with all the fine art, imagination and detail that accompanies their productions.
"Just to get to sit with [Fantine] for a bit, to see her fall in love, expect to have a great future, and then to watch her drop to the bottom of society because it was set up to do that to her and young women like her" sets the series apart from previous adaptations, Oyelowo says. His performance as Javert is remarkable. Ultimately, it is one of the best versions on screen.
"There is a sense of love and hope in the story that manages to push itself above the despair." — Andrew Davies, Executive Producer and Writer
The PBS release delivers an outstanding 1080p picture (2.00:1 aspect ratio) and 5.1 soundtrack, each near reference quality. It looks much better than broadcast. Color is bright, lush and well-saturated in exterior and interior scenes, and in dark and sunlit settings. Detail in costumes, sets and props is very good. Skin tones are natural, except for early sequences when Vajean’s face is flushed red. This is consistent, so I’m wondering if there was reason or error behind it. It marks a huge difference between prisoner/outlaw Valjean and the respected mayor/businessman he becomes. It’s easier to believe that Javert is unable to recognize him after his release. The series was filmed in Sedan, France, and Belgium. Landscapes are architecture are authentic and beautiful. Dialogue comes through clearly, with subtitles for those who may have difficulty with accents. The original score is by John Murphy.
Sadly, bonus features are few and very short: “Battle of Waterloo,” “The Look of Les Misèrables,” and “Behind the Barricades.” More can be found at PBS.org.
The story continues to fascinate. Masterpiece/PBS shows us why.
— Kay Reynolds