The Hero’s Journey in “Les Miserables”

This is a quality mini-series, with splendid performances, a very authentic looking portrayal of the period and a mostly faithful adaptation of the book. It’s abruptly abbreviated in parts – Marius’s part of the story gets particular short shrift – with the longer version presumably explaining more. But the basic tragedy is clear, if rushed.

Gerard Depardieu is as reliable as ever as Jean Valjean, the ex-convict who reforms but finds that his past haunts him everywhere he goes, chiefly in the person of unforgiving policeman Javert. A habitual thief, the kindness of a bishop he meets on release from prison turns Valjean into a new man who rises to become a businessman and mayor. Yet, when another is wrongly arrested in his name, it is his new responsibility that makes him own up, abandoning all he has built.

And that, too, makes him go on the run with orphan Cosette, daughter of an unfortunate poor woman he has vowed to protect. They find sanctuary for a time, but never security. Virginie Ledoyen is a beautiful, if slightly simpering, Cosette and the French Revolution scenes, though they seem to come out of nowhere, are dramatically staged.

John Malkovich plays Javert as very matter-of-fact, almost bored. Rather than intensely cruel, he seems like he’d really rather the scum of the street just get it over with and go to jail so he can get back to what he was doing (but you have no idea what that was). Some of that is John Malkovich, but some is the script: for instance, he actually catches Fantine the first time she’s out at night, and lets her go on the basis that she hasn’t crossed the line yet. It took some getting used to, and I’m still not sure how well it worked – but it also made his last hours, helping Valjean carry Marius home from the barricade, seem more in character.

We got to see into Cosette’s head a bit more than usual. What does she think of all the moving, all the name changes? She knows something’s up, but her father has earned her trust, so she comes up with an honorable business-related explanation for it all. Virginie Ledoyen plays her with enough range that she becomes a person. And there’s a fascinating scene where she and Éponine (Asia Argento) meet as adults. Éponine admits she was horrible to Cosette as a child, but she’s following enough in her parents’ footsteps that she has no thought of asking forgiveness.

Otto Sander’s portrayal of Monsieur Bienvenu is a much more practical Bishop Myriel than the saintly way he’s often portrayed. He’s still kind to a fault, of course — he has to be, since his kindness is literally what changes Valjean’s life — but his wit has a little more bite to it, and he becomes a bit more of a character in his own right (even for the handful of minutes he appears) instead of simply remaining a plot device.

Gerard Depardieu’s Valjean is more driven by fear than other versions I’ve seen. It’s obviously a big part of his character, trying to evade capture for years, but here it seems stronger than his need to pay forward the Bishop’s trust in him. It makes him seem less present?