If you’ve had it up to the eyeballs with the hype about the Game of Thrones final season (Sunday, HBO, 9 p.m.) you have my sympathy. Some of us feel we dare not go out in public without a prepared statement on Jon Snow, the Iron Throne and the weather in Westeros.
Still, not everyone is totally enthralled. This weekend will find a lot of people more enthralled by the final round of the Masters or, heaven help us, the hockey playoffs. And if your taste runs to epic drama about good and evil, with compelling characters and sumptuous visuals – and not Game of Thrones – have I got a good recommendation for you.
Les Misérables (Sunday, PBS, 9 p.m. on Masterpiece) is dragon-free drama, a heroic poem of a story about the have-nots and, let it be noted, also song-free. This is not the musical, nor is it the clumsy movie version featuring Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway warbling away about love and dignity and stuff like that. It is a new six-part British dramatization of Victor Hugo’s original novel, deftly done by Andrew Davies.
Davies is the chap who has written many nifty, fast-paced and visceral adaptations of Charles Dickens and George Eliot, and who did the original House of Cards, and he approaches the book as something very distinct from the hit musical and the movie. Speaking at a conference last year he said, “I thought it’s important that people realize there is a lot more to Les Misérables than that sort of shoddy farrago.” Indeed, “shoddy farrago.” Well said. Davies is still feisty at the age of 82.
There’s nothing shabby about this forceful series. It has a formidable visual sweep that starts with a stunning overhead shot of the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo. All the dead, all the killing, and for what? The on-screen intro says this: “After 20 years of war, France is defeated and Napoleon is exiled. A new king is waiting to be crowned. The old order is to be restored. The revolution is to be forgotten.” Then we are thrust into the main characters and main ingredients of the story.
In Paris, one Monsieur Pontmercy, whom we’ve already met as a nice army officer at Waterloo (he helped a thief who will reappear later), is trying to make peace with his upper-class father-in-law, Gillenormand (David Bradley from Game of Thrones and every British drama of the past decade). He is loftily informed that Napoleon was a scoundrel and Pontmercy, who fought in Napoleon’s army, is a traitor to his class. Also, Pontmercy can’t see his son, of whom Gillenormand is now in charge. But, wait, a good-hearted maid tells the crushed Pontmercy how he can see his son at church on Sundays. Thus begins the drama’s main theme of goodness triumphing over hard-hearted pomposity and cruelty. It sounds like a complex plot, and yet it isn’t.
Meanwhile, our central anti-hero Jean Valjean (Dominic West doing a wickedly robust, stoic man of the people) is breaking rocks in prison. Because he stole a loaf of bread. And, back in Paris, naïve seamstress Fantine (Lily Collins) is being seduced by upper-class rogue Felix. He tells her he’s a poet and she will be his muse. But anyone can see what he’s after and where it will end. By Episode 2, Fantine is reduced to living a horrific life of poverty and regret. All this while Valjean makes his way across France, postprison and trying manfully to keep on the straight and narrow, but harbouring distaste for injustice, class snobbery and callousness. His journey is overshadowed by one Inspector Javert (David Oyelowo) who won’t rest until Valjean is back in prison.
Visually this Les Misérables is often breathtaking. Whether it is the grim back streets of Paris or the lush countryside, the sense of the country’s grand sweep is emphatic. It is not, mind, an emotionally complex story. Nor was it meant to be. It simply unfolds, scene after scene, as the main characters are drawn together into the group that will try to ensure that the ideals of the revolution are not, actually, forgotten.
When this version aired on the BBC in Britain recently, it brought forth some windy sneering from the right-wing press. It was called sentimental and overly melodramatic and, specifically, overly sentimental about the have-nots. That is in fact what makes it bracing drama for our time. Treat an entire class of people badly and they will revolt. There is no need to suspend disbelief for that theme. Oh, and Dominic West is simply magnificent as Valjean. As an alternative to Game of Thrones, Les Misérables is just ideal.