“Les Misérables” is hardly lacking for adaptations, from multiple movies to the long-running musical. Yet Victor Hugo’s durable 19th-century soap opera gets a lavish, inordinately expansive makeover with a new six-hour production featuring Dominic West and David Oyelowo, one that fleshes out characters and situations normally given short shrift on screen.
Adapted by Andrew Davies (“Bleak House”), directed by Tom Shankland (“The Missing”) and counting its leads among the producers, this BBC-backed “Les Miz” provides plenty of detail about West’s Jean Valjean, naturally, and a meaty role for Oyelowo as the dogged inspector who first torments him in prison, then pursues him once he’s fled.
Where this impeccably produced edition of PBS’ “Masterpiece” truly excels, though, is in the intricate backstories for the other players. That begins with the tragic Fantine (Lily Collins); her daughter Cosette (Ellie Bamber as a teenager), who becomes Val Jean’s ward; and Marius (Josh O’Connor), the aristocrat who joins the ill-fated uprising, having grown up in privilege with his grandfather (David Bradley) while being kept apart from his veteran father.
Perhaps foremost, the luxury of time allows Davies’ treatment to highlight the class disparities and political inequity that are at the heart of Hugo’s story, showing the licentious, privileged young men that dally with Fantine and her friends but then run back to Paris, abandoning her with a child and scant means of support.
The quality of the casting, meanwhile, extends to relatively modest roles, with Derek Jacobi as the kindly bishop who puts Valjean on his righteous path and Olivia Colman – fresh off her Oscar win for “The Favourite” – in costume again as Mrs. Thenardier, who along with her husband (Adeel Akhtar ) know their way around the sewers in more ways than one.
Even there, though, there’s a richness to the characterizations, with Thenardier’s casual slap of his wife betraying a level of violence that within the relationship that extends into her interactions with the children in their charge.
The action sequences, similarly, are starker and bloodier than most versions of the story. That combines with the dense design of Paris’ mean streets to give this “Masterpiece” presentation a premium-TV texture.
Practically speaking PBS’ timing could probably be better, with the miniseries’ six weeks running headlong into all the hoopla surrounding “Game of Thrones.”
Still, when you think about it, the parallels between Hugo’s decades-spanning saga of injustice, redemption and romance dealt with similar themes, albeit in a historical manner.
Both feature sprawling casts and depict hard, cruel worlds. But in a perfect one, there would be time – and DVR space – enough for both of them, and a “Les Miserables” that skips the songs but which hits all the right notes.
“Les Miserables” premieres April 14 at 9 p.m. on PBS.