Skip to main content

The Journal Gazette

  • PBS Dominic West, left, and David Oyelowo star in the PBS' version of“Les Misérables.” 

Sunday, April 14, 2019 1:00 am

PBS takes crack at 'Miserables' tale

Jay Bobbin | Zap2it

The latest version of “Les Miserables” has something it didn't while it was being filmed: an Oscar-winning star.

Olivia Colman earned an Academy Award as best actress for “The Favourite” after completing PBS' “Masterpiece” retelling of Victor Hugo's classic about desperate thief Jean Valjean (now played by “The Affair's” Dominic West) and his dogged nemesis, Inspector Javert (“Selma's” David Oyelowo). Colman and Adeel Akhtar portray Madame and Monsieur Thenardier in the BBC co-production, also starring Lily Collins (“Mirror Mirror”) as Fantine and beginning its six-part run Sunday.

For its incarnation, “Les Miserables” was adapted by two-time Emmy winner Andrew Davies, co-writer of the original, British “House of Cards.” He admits he “never read” the Hugo novel before getting the assignment, adding that after he did, “I thought it was a terrific story that resonated so much with the world we live in today, particularly, I thought I'd just want to have a go at this.”

A racial element exists between the central enemies in the new “Les Miserables,” and Oyelowo (also one of the drama's executive producers, as is West) notes, “Contrary to some popular belief, not every black man living in Europe in the early 1800s was some kind of slave or subservient in some way. Napoleon had black generals in his army.

“I am always looking for ways to shake things up for myself. I have had the opportunity to play a number of virtuous, good men in my career, and I was kind of fascinated by this character who is so obsessed in his pursuit of another human being.”

As for playing the pursued, West reflects, “Victor Hugo said this story will have meaning so long as there is poverty. He probably didn't think that 150 years later, there would be so much ... but the gap between rich and poor, which was so obvious then and led to the French Revolution, is now much bigger. Therefore, poverty is still very prevalent. And the idea of centering on the weak, the dispossessed, and writing a novel about the people who are not the strong leaders or the fortunate is still quite revolutionary.”

Among the other acted versions “Les Miserables” has yielded are a long-celebrated stage musical and a 2012 movie that earned Anne Hathaway an Oscar as Fantine.

“No matter what generation you are, there's something about it that you can connect to,” says Collins (a daughter of music's Phil Collins). “There were certain things about Fantine that I thought were very modern, but also, there were things of a time gone by that were romanticized. And the way that Andrew adapted it, it just felt so real.”