Les Misérables: this epic of the have-nots is pretty dire

Plus: Revolution in Ruins: The Hugo Chavez Story.

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As the BBC’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (Sundays, 9pm) reaches its midway point, let us briefly put aside the man-sized Kleenex and the wild disbelief and consider precisely why this series is so bewildering. I mean, is it (quite) good? Or is it (very) bad? Or, perhaps, both? All I can tell you is that whenever the reformed criminal Jean Valjean (Dominic West), is on screen, I am in its thrall. How I blubbed when he told little Cosette (Lia Giovanelli), the enslaved daughter of the seamstress-turned-prostitute Fantine (Lily Collins), that tonight he would carry her buckets of water. The rest of the time, I’m all eye-rolls. Dear God. The sentimentality. The melodrama. The simplistic division between good and evil. And people have the temerity to slag off Dickens, the velvet lapels of whose frock coat M Hugo is not, in my view, fit even to dust.

What I’m saying, I suppose, is that this epic of the have-nots, boiled down like old bones to six hours of television, is pretty dire, but that West is such a good actor he makes you forget this. I love the hint of South Yorkshire he has added to his voice, and I love the moments when the camera lingers on his expressive, rather simian features, the better that we might register his more fleeting and suppressed emotions. But how little help he gets from elsewhere. I adore Olivia Colman, but both Andrew Davies’s script and the series director, Tom Shankland, have required her here – as the landlady Mme Thénardier, she is Cosette’s torturer-in-chief – to lay on both the spite and the comedy with such dotty alacrity, it’s as if she’s in a pantomime (that, or this is her audition for Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd). Beside this, and the cartoony performance of her Waterloo “hero” husband, Thénardier (Adeel Akhtar), Valjean’s sincerity seems misplaced, somehow, as if he’s wandered in from another production entirely.

The script tells and tells and tells. There are few asides, and no subtext; the plot just unspools, like rope. Every twist is preposterous, the latest being Valjean’s escape from prison, to which he returned having confessed his true identity to his arch enemy Javert (David Oyelowo), the inspector of police, and which took him all of 30 seconds. (What was the thing he spat out of his mouth in his cell? A skeleton key? A saw? A hand grenade?) The poverty and degradation is Monty Python-relentless – replace the cardboard boxes on motorways with old Burgundy bottles in badger sets and you’re there – and while every priest and nun is entirely good, pretty much any member of the establishment is creepiness personified.

We have to take so much on trust. Why, for instance, is Javert so obsessed with banging up Valjean again? This has never been adequately explained, just as Valjean’s conversion to the straight life has never quite been explained (yes, yes, I know it has something to do with the candlesticks he nicked from Derek Jacobi a while back – but was that kindly priest’s refusal to snitch on him really enough to set him on the narrow path?). Abandoned Fantine, having sold her hair, her teeth and her body, is dead now. But did we weep? No, for she was never more than a cipher. As she lay in the convent, gasping for air, I kept thinking how weird it was that, even days later, her mouth was still filled with blood following the extraction of her incisors. If Colman is Widow Twanky with added garlic, Collins seemed to be rehearsing – aargh! – for a role in a forthcoming zombie apocalypse movie.

Now that’s off my chest, let us move on to – yes, more poverty – Revolution in Ruins: The Hugo Chavez Story (16 January, 9pm). Ruth Mayer’s dash through Venezuela’s recent history wasn’t a radical piece of film-making, but it worked brilliantly. How quickly a state can fail. How easily a people can be taken in. How weirdly similar were Chavez’s media tactics to those of Trump. Jeremy Corbyn, incidentally, appeared more than once, swooning at the feet of Chavez like some suburban teenager, two minutes of beard in an hour-long festival of corruption, murder and starvation. He won’t watch it, of course, but everyone else should – even if only through the gaps in their fingers. 

Les Misérables (BBC One)
Revolution in Ruins: The Hugo Chavez Story (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 18 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit trapped Britain