DVD Review: Les Misérables (French mini-series)

51Qp5nxXi4L._SL500_AA300_Buy from: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR | Amazon DE

This 4-part, 6-hour TV adaptation of Les Misérables has a lot going for it. First of all, the length; it’s the longest adaptation of the novel (arguably the greatest French novel of the 19th century, and one of the longest). It has a large cast, with some excellent actors. Unfortunately, it’s filmed in the typically bland style of French TV, and the direction is nothing more than workmanlike. When I first started watching this, I was almost tempted to give up after 15 minutes. But it got better over time. (I had similar thoughts when watching a recent mini-series based on Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu by the same director, also made for TV.)

Gérard Depardieu plays Jean Valjean, and, for me, he doesn’t quite fit the part. He’s too big, too brash to have the subtlety the character needs. On the other hand, John Malkovich is an excellent Javert, though his dispassionate portrayal of the character can be seen as a bit too distant. Christian Clavier is Thénardier, and seems a bit out of place. A comic actor, generally in simple comedies, his persona doesn’t quite fit. However, Virginie Ledoyen is nearly perfect as Cosette, with her innocence and fetching smiles.

But the main problem here is that everything is too clean, too heroic and idealized. Hugo did not write a novel where everyone is washed and shaved; he wrote about “les misérables,” the downtrodded, the poor. These are people who suffer, not people with clean shirts all the time. In this adaptation, everything is just a bit too perfect. (It’s totally different from the recent adaptation of the musical, which, for all its faults, does show the characters in squalor.)

The good points here are the length: at 6 hours, you do get much more of the story – and it is a complex story – than other versions. But the mediocre direction, so-so acting, and overall approach make it lose points. It’s worth watching if you’re a fan of the novel.

DVD Notes: Complete BBC Shakespeare

A few years ago, I bought this wonderful complete set of the BBC’s productions of Shakespeare’s plays. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) Recorded between 1978 and 1985, these recordings show their age, but feature a plethora of excellent actors and actresses, such as John Gielgud, Derek Jacobi, Bob Hoskins, Brenda Blethyn, Anthony Hopkins and Clive Swift. No modern productions here – all of these are period pieces, and feature the BBC’s minimalist sets and design. This design can be annoying in some productions, but in most the words take precedence and one ignores the sets.

As yet, I have only watched a handful of the DVDs, but the ones I have watched (the first four Henrys, Romeo and Juliet, The Comedy of Errors and King Lear) are all excellent. As I said, they show their age, but they do represent a fairly consistent approach to the works, in spite of featuring a number of different directors (notably Jonathan Miller) throughout the series.

For Shakespeare fans, this is a must-have set, especially considering its relatively friendly price (£68 at the time of this writing). Note, however, that the BBC is embarking on a new series of Shakespeare plays in the near future, with today’s actors and actresses. I don’t think that’s any reason to avoid this set, however, as it shows a type of Shakespearean interpretation that is, in a way, for the ages.

This set isn’t sold at Amazon US, but you can get several more expensive box sets of the plays, or rent them from Amazon.

Update, September, 2011: since I first posted this in 2008, I’ve watched about half of the plays; I have no desire to go through them all in a hurry. While some productions are weaker than others, overall, the set is magnificent. Notable plays are Hamlet, with Derek Jacobi in the title role, and Othello, with Bob Hoskins as Iago. Some of the productions are a bit dated, and tacky, but the acting is generally very good to excellent. At the price at which this set is sold – a couple of quid per play – this really is a steal.

For a different way of approaching Shakespeare, check out this set of audio recordings of the plays.