The BBC’s new, no-singing Les Misérables (2019) just wrapped up airing in the States on PBS. I’ve heard a lot of complaints that it’s slow, but I really liked it! Well, I really liked the first half, and was okay with the second. Partially that may be because I’m not really in the mood to watch happy people being happy, but I also liked that they took the time to go into aspects of the story that don’t usually make the cut.
I think what I most enjoyed was that the first few episodes really fleshed out Fantine’s story. She’s the unwed factory worker who is lured into a relationship by a cad and left with a child, Cosette, who she has to leave with the Thénardiers to raise so she can work. In the musical, which I spent most of my high school years ADORING, Fantine’s story starts near the end. Here, we get to see the transition from happy “grisette” (Parisian working girl), her seduction and eventual abandonment by a caddish, well-to-do fuckboy, and then her struggle to support her daughter as her life deteriorates.
I have to say, watching these episodes was very interesting in light of current political developments, like the passage of a draconian anti-abortion law in Alabama. Here’s where I want to remind y’all that Frock Flicks is a feminist publication, because honestly, this story provides an excellent example of what happens when women aren’t in control of their own bodies. Do I think Fantine should have aborted her child? Of course not, that would have been Fantine and Fantine alone’s decision, I can’t make that for her. But when women live in a society that offers them no choices and no bodily autonomy, and in fact penalizes them for taking control of their bodies and lives, WOMEN AND CHILDREN SUFFER.
Women NEED access to safe and easily available contraception, so that they can make conscious choices of if and when to have children. When they don’t, CHILDREN HAPPEN. People have been having sex since the dawn of time, and they’re NOT GOING TO STOP NOW. You can preach about abstinence all you want, but the fact is that the reality is SEX, which equals PROCREATION. Women (and men) have been preventing pregnancy since time began, and women have been inducing abortions (and frequently dying in the process) since time began. None of this is going to stop. When women can CONTROL THEIR OWN BODIES AND LIVES, children are wanted and a whole lot less suffering occurs.
Of course, novelist Victor Hugo doesn’t go into contraception and abortion in Les Mis. But their absence is fundamental to the story. If Fantine could have just had a diaphragm, some condoms, the pill, or an IUD, Les Mis would have been an incredibly different story. If Fantine had the choice to say, “You know what? I can’t support a child” and choose to have a safe abortion, Les Mis would have been a very different story. If Fantine had lived in a society that didn’t judge women for getting pregnant (when men are VERY MUCH involved), and actually gave a shit about HUMAN BEINGS including women and children and supported them on a literal, practical level (food, housing, healthcare, education), Les Mis would have been a kinder, gentler, happier story.
Instead, Fantine is young and impressionable, gets lured in by a jerk of a guy who takes no responsibility for his own actions, and is left to bear the burden. THAT is what a society without access to safe contraception and abortion looks like. It looks like poverty and child neglect and death.
I’d like to quote an excellent post by Femislay on Instagram, who wrote:
“Do you ever wish there were more words in the English language? Because you experienced this feeling and there’s no words to describe it. But all these people who have never experienced that feeling have taken it upon themselves to tell you how you feel and what you experienced. The best way I can find to describe this is a grateful sadness. Because it was sad. You were pregnant but you didn’t want to be a mother. And you lay on the table and you looked at the ultrasound and you knew what you were supposed to feel. You were supposed to be elated and you would turn up to see your partner smiling down at you and you would both cry. And you were crying. But you were alone in the room with the doctor and you were crying because you couldn’t believe the shit you had gotten yourself into. And you were sad when the doctor asked if you wanted to keep the ultrasound. But you said yes and you took the photo and put it in your wallet where it is today. But holy hell were you grateful. Because that day the only thing you left the clinic with was that photo, your sister who yelled at you the night you took the test but still made the appointment and drove you to the clinic, and the pill you were to take later that day. And that was last year. And this is 2019. And you still haven’t found the words to describe your feelings that day — because you were crying. But you were also telling yourself – thank god that’s over thank god that’s over. Because the fact that it was that easy. That is was over in one day. That you had that support. That you had someone to buy you the test. Make you take the test. And take it again. That you had someone to loan you money. Drive you to the clinic. And drive you home. That it was that easy. It was like the first miracle of your life. But it wasn’t a miracle. It was progress. And it was how you should be — you taking control of your life and your body. And you knowing that no matter how many people (see cis men) tell you what you did was wrong, you know that feeling. Choosing that grateful sadness was the greatest choice you ever made.”
A few other thoughts on the production itself before I get to the costumes:
Costumes in Les Misérables
The costumes were designed by Marianne Agertoft (Poldark season one, Death Comes to Pemberley). She told The Telegraph:
“’As a BBC production there are always people who are very keen to keep things exactly of the period,’ she says, noting that some of the dye colours might not have been as vivid at the time, or that synthetic textiles may substitute natural ones occasionally, to no detriment. ‘It’s important, too, to make sure that it doesn’t look stuffy, and that it’s visually interesting for a prime time audience. You want it to not upset people, or distract from the story, but the costumes also need to be striking and keep their attention. It’s all about getting that balance right’” (Les Misérables: how Olivia Colman, Lily Collins and Ellie Bamber were transformed with ‘punky, romantic’ costumes).
To those people at the BBC who are so very keen to keep things exactly of the period, I say:
There’s a really interesting interview with Jacqueline Fowler, the make-up and hair designer (Jamestown, Gunpowder, War & Peace, The Scandalous Lady W, the very first episode of Poldark, The Crimson Petal and the White), at Make-Up Artist Magazine. She gives us a lot of interesting tidbits on an aspect that’s integral to the overall look, but not usually highlighted in terms of press. For example, she talked about Valjean’s (Dominic West) changing look:
“The story is set over a big span of several years, and because we were jumping in and out of different episodes all the time, I had to keep things relatively simple. I played around with things like Dominic’s sideburns for example, to reflect his status, where they’re a bit more wiry and wooly at one point, but when he later up-markets himself, he cuts the sideburns down. I had to keep his hair pretty much the same, except for his dying days, which was shot near the end, so I was able to shave his hair almost off, so it was quite a transformation” (Crime and Punishment).
Talking about Lily Collins as Fantine, Fowler discusses both making Fantine look real and the critical element of the tooth removal:
“It was a massive design process to create that look, starting in episode one where she’s pretty but not quite getting the fashion right. The style is playful and fun, but it’s not the high fashion of Paris, so I really wanted to get that distinction across. It’s quite a moving bit in the story and Lily was very brave, and it was nice to do all the different looks for her — from this beautiful girl in episode one who doesn’t have a care in the world, to her final decline. Obviously, we cast Lily’s teeth as well. We could have done it the old-fashioned way by blacking out her teeth, but I ended up having some green-screen teeth made instead, which we used on special occasions when we would see the teeth and green screen” (Crime and Punishment).
Looking at other characters, Agertoft told The Telegraph that she wanted to avoid copying Paco Delgado’s costumes from the 2012 musical version of Les Misérables when it came to the Thénardiers:
“If there was anything that I wanted to avoid from the film it was coming anywhere near that [portrayal] because this version is so rooted in reality, it really wouldn’t work for us. I loved Helena’s take on it, with Sacha Baron Cohen as this theatrical double act wearing those visual distinct costumes which completely exaggerated the way that they moved and behaved. So for Olivia [Colman], I was very relaxed and I didn’t want to make something elaborate for her. I wanted to give her something as simple as possible, a seemingly boring dress, but one that gave her the posture to move as she wanted to as that character. She was the easiest one to dress” (Les Misérables: how Olivia Colman, Lily Collins and Ellie Bamber were transformed with ‘punky, romantic’ costumes).
Looking at teenage Cosette, I thought she was dressed very well BUT HER HAIR. When she leaves the convent, she’s wearing a 10-years-out-of-date dress and very practical coat and bonnet:
She tells pops she’s going to need an updated wardrobe, and there’s a nice scene where they go to a dressmakers’ and Fantine gets to buy various fashionable gowns:
Most of her dresses were very pretty and perfect for the year of 1832, including appropriate underwear. Actress Ellie Bamber told Stylist, “I wore a corset but not a proper one; it wasn’t all bones. I had a wooden block all the way down my chest like a plank and thinner bones around the side” (Les Miserables’ Ellie Bamber talks corsets, Olivia Colman and what makes her angry), which sounds like she’s describing the kind of corsets worn in this period, which were more lightly boned (and had a busk at the center front) than later styles.
Cosette does manage to get her hair up for one or two scenes:
But most of the time her hair is worn down to make her look young and innocent and pure. Which, you know, I could handle, EXCEPT THAT THEY’VE GIVEN HER THE KIND OF BEACHY WAVES THAT NO HAIR DOES ON ITS OWN WITHOUT A CURLING IRON.
Luckily they put her hair up and gave her a nice dress for her wedding — and even a bonnet! Agertoft told The Telegraph what seems to be the costume designers’ constant refrain when it comes to bonnets, “We’ve kept bonnets off the women quite a lot of the time, even at moments when they would have worn them then. Why? Because they can very much get in the way” (The inside story of the BBC adaptation of Les Misérables… by the man who sexed up War and Peace).
Finally, I wanted to note that David Bradley (aka Walder Frey!) as Gillenormand wears a wig, both in the 1815 and 1832 scenes. There’s very little chance even a royalist aristocrat would be wearing a wig by 1832, but it makes a good visual connection to this royalist/pre-French Revolutionary sympathies, so it worked for me.
What did you think of the new Les Misérables?
As someone who loves Les Misérables (musical and original novel), this adaptation really doesn’t do it for me. I wanted to like it (especially since it’s so close to the book, plot-wise!), but there was something lacking emotionally for me. I think what really resonates with me in Les Mis is that it’s a story about mostly good people trying their best to get by in a cruel society, and some characters in the BBC version (particularly Valjean), felt too harsh and angry.
I also didn’t love the costumes, or the production design as a whole. The costumes were very “meh” for me — I don’t like when everyone, regardless of social class, looks like they’re covered in a layer of ground-in dirt. Everything was too brown and beige and limp, and I could have done with some more color and some more interesting silhouettes, especially on Cosette. I also think I’m harsher on this production because I was watching it alongside Gentleman Jack, which has the most glorious 1830s costumes I’ve ever seen and takes place the same year as the barricades in Les Mis.
Cosette’s sleeves are so sad and non puffy haha. Poor sleeves.
I absolutely loved it. And I think the acting was fantastic, especially the two central parts. I’m not a fan of the musical, or the book, but this version really did it for me. Partly, because, as you say, it gives Fantine her due and shows how a girl could fall so easily. Olivia Coleman gave her usual amazing interpretation, she really does throw herself into a part.
The costumes were great, apart from the floppy hair on Cosette.
Yuck. What a creepy prick. I can’t get over that “it fits into the psychology of the book.”. Such an ego with so little to back it up!
Don’t forget the quote where he claims Les Mis still resonates today because… people sometimes don’t get to marry their first choice and gave to settle! Is he talking about Marius, who he made attracted to Eponine despite him being repelled by her in the book and single-mindedly obsessed with Cosette? Or maybe Cosette, I’m sure it’s quite possible to read some sort of Electra complex into her character and he seems obsessed with making all the relationships sexual.
Thank you. He does sound creepy and like he sexualized relationships that shouldn’t have been sexualized. Idk why he would insist on doing that. It’s weird.
Weird comments for an interview, but also interesting thoughts. I don’t see anything particularly wrong with them, not in a “how dare he!” type of way.
I think the problem is two fold. He has weird and incorrect interpretations – Javert is not particularly obsessed with Valjean in the book, and Marius hardly considers Eponine female. He also thinks Valjean fancied Fantine iirc. People have made gay jokes about Valjean/Javert for years but the other interpretations are really strange, I can’t help but think he was inspired by how attractive Eponine is often cast in the musical. The second thing is that he considers (14 year old!) Eponine soliciting Marius on orders of her dad as teasing behavior, and frames her as sexy and not much else in the series… you don’t see a problem with that? Especially in a story that spends quite a chunk criticizing the mistreatment of women and how society thrusts them into bad circumstances only to dismiss them as “whores”? Then again from his interviews he doesn’t seem particularly interested in the social aspect of the story… only sex and hating on the musical. Not quite “how dare he” but he does seem like a foolish man.
I actually don’t have a problem with Davies thinking these thoughts or even having the guts to mention them in interviews. We all have our quirks and our weird fantasies. My main complaint is that he seems to be losing the ability to adapt classic literature without adding lots of gratuitous titillation that has no basis in the source material. And then he wants to pass these adaptations off as “faithful.” I don’t think that this was as much of a problem with him in previous decades. What went wrong?
The cast is excellent, at least. They deserved better material.
We covered Les Mis in high school. The teacher gave us a bad abridged copy to read, leading me to assume for years that Fantine was a widow.
Reading Kendra’s rant reminded me of the book “Charlotte Temple,” which I don’t think became a frock flick but should. She starts in a well to do family, but ends up in similar circumstances to Fantine here.
I was also reminded of Amelia Dyer, Minnie Dean, Miyuki Ishikawa and other “baby farmers.”
I have never loved you all more. Thank you so, so much for your ardent support of your fellow women, and for the context around why choice is so important.
Also, thank you for the one shot of smoldering hot David Oyelowo. I haven’t had a chance to watch this yet – I’m hesitant because of the lack of singing, I’ll admit it – but this looks gorgeous, you may have changed my mind. Well, we do have a long weekend ahead, so I guess there’s time to binge while I’m in my sewing room …
I saw the early episodes and while I enjoyed them on an acting level and how they portrayed Fantine, I really wanted scream at the jerk boyfriend or is it jerk manchild, YOU ALSO HAD SEX OUT OF WEDLOCK, SHE DIDN’T GET PREGNANT BY THE HS – MAN UP AND SUPPORT HER, YOU POOR EXCUSE FOR A HUMAN BEING. (sorry for the rant)
And beaucoup thanks for the support of women’s rights.
Does anyone remember the LAW AND ORDER episode where Lieutenant Van Buren mentions how the right to life groups seem to vanish once the child is born?
Also Cosette is a milquetoast. And Gentlemen Jack is mullions of times better. Ann Walker has reasons for her timidity and mild milquetoast tendencies. Cosette doesn’t. Unless being pure/innocent is one. Eponine is so much more.
So I’ll watch it completely either in DVD or when PBS repeats.
Hope Palais Galleria is open when you go to Paris.
And I too adored Les Mis.
Yes! I think about that L&O line All. The. Time. She said it off-hand but it was truth.
Here’s the episode: https://lawandorder.fandom.com/wiki/Progeny
I loved the fact that this story is so much closer to the book. The fact that there is “color blind” casting feels true to me. At this time how many people of color had fled back to France as they were trying to escape slavery in other areas or the horrific Haitian revolution 30 years before. The only character that makes me want to smack them is Cosette. She lived with the Thenardiers for 7 years and was used as a slave. She is not that innocent or unaware. It’s like she got stupid for no reason.
In the book Cosette has only the vaguest recollections of her pre-convent childhood.
I thought it was a very poor adaption and not accurate to the novel at all. I thought the casting was racist, as only the antagonists, servants and the now very-emphasised-that-she’s-a-sex-worker Eponine were non-white. I also found it creepy how the only two characters treated extensively with the male gaze were the younger generation’s teen female characters. No male gaze for Fantine?
And you don’t mention it, but the costumes were very obviously inspired by? ripped-off from? the musical film.
Oh, and this version of Marius is just as bad as Fantine’s lover so there’s nothing triumphant about the ending at all. They got very young looking pretty actresses for the female leads but not for Marius nor Enjolras, who were both cast too old. And what flat, traitless interpretations of these iconic characters, who are SO much more likable in the musical or book. If you can’t tell I hated this adaption for its wasted potential quite a bit. 😁
Agree with everything you said. Marius is supposed to be the OPPOSITE of Felix Tholomyes (Fantine’s boyfriend), he’s described as pure and chaste. What a strange interpretation. I haven’t seen much discussion about the actual content of the series, only “no singing!” and buying into the “returning to the book” marketing.
I read the novel (both in French and English) and always felt that Javert was the real tragic hero. He is not a villain; rather, he is a man so devoted to his duty that he is incapable of diverting from it, even in the case of other circumstances. For him, justice and the law are inseparable, and his inability to distinguish the two is why he kills himself in the end.
And I think it’s a shame that we have to use the term “non-singing” to distinguish a straightforward adaptation of Hugo’s novel. It’s like folks whose only knowledge of Broadway plays is based on the film versions, with no awareness of the original stage plays and their casts.
Re: Javert. When a man looks that good in 19th c. dress who cares about his skin color?
I wasn’t crazy about this adaptation – I can’t pinpoint exactly why because I like the actor choices and it was pretty true to the book which is always a good thing! Something about it just didn’t make me feel that much for the characters unfortunately but I totally agree with your views on the costuming. I think it was really well done overall and felt much more historically accurate than the terrible movie version! Great post!
I read the book so I know poor Fantine sells her teeth to a “dentist” who wants to use them to make dentures. This was so she could pay for medicine for Cozette. (Which was a lie from the Theardieners that Cozette was sick to get money from her making it even more tragic.)
But there has never been an adaptation that showed her teeth being taken out. Just her cutting her hair to sell it, even in the theater versions.
So with that said, is anyone else completely TRAUMATIZED but the photo of Lily Collins with the bloody mouth?!?!?! Holy cow!!! There are scars on my soul.
I loved the first few episodes. I loved the Fantine story arc and the costumes she wore after she became the mistress of that rich student were gorgeous. By the time she was dying she was completely unrecognizable. The transformation was astounding. But as soon as that sniveling, senseless, selfish Cosette came on the screen, it was like…ugh. Idc HOW in love Cosette was with Marius, I doubt she would run out into the street to go look for him JUST as French soldiers on a mission to put down a rebellion passed her . She was constantly fainting for no reason and acting like an airhead…was that supposed to make her endearing? I liked the Cosettes from the 1998 & 2012 films better.
The only part I liked about this is the Fantine arc and the ending. That scene where she is being raped by the soldiers under the bridge does still traumatize me whenever I remember it, plus the implied fact that the doll Valjean gave to little Cosette has Fantine’s hair makes me shudder. I agree with some people here that the costumes looks similar to the Tom Hooper film version (which by the way has a scene in which Fantine sells her teeth), which leads me to assume that the visuals are partly inspired by that film, especially that they made Fantine a brunette, who was a blonde in the book (she was described as having her dowry as the gold in her hair and pearls in her mouth). The ending was bleak which was fitting with the whole miserable people plot line, that even though all the character’s plot had their closure, social injustice still prevails in society, as symbolized by the young boys that Gavrouche met, who are begging in the streets.
Necessary disclaimer: haven’t seen this series yet, but thanks for the screencaps and commentary–especially tying it to women’s reproductive rights today. That said, I’m a huge fan of the original novel and I will defend Cosette to my last breath; it’s a shame the musical (and from your description, I’m assuming this series as well?) waters down a lot of her personality, since you get a great sense both of how important it is that she retains her kindness in the face of her constant childhood traumas and that she reflects that same kindness in her actions–while she loves fashion, she prioritizes charity and caring about those who weren’t lucky enough to escape poverty the way she did, and she actually forces Valjean to take care of himself and shows how much she loves him, to the point that his angst over her relationship with Marius makes a lot more sense when you realize how Valjean and Cosette have really been each other’s sole family for so long. Plus the book made a point of the fact that Mme. Thernardier made Eponine and Cosette internalize the idea that Eponine was inherently better than Cosette because of her legitimate birth and relatively higher social class, and was therefore destined for wealth and true love (a thought process straight out of contemporary romantic literature). So then Cosette’s fateful adoption and the near-coincidental downfall of her abusers, plus the fact that Cosette is in fact never recognized as part of a superior class or particularly pretty (which: future adaptations, PLEASE REMEMBER THIS) is a very cool subversion of all those narrative tropes. All that plus her continued love for humanity in the face of all she’s lost really does make her a great symbol of the story’s central themes and what Hugo wanted people to take away from the novel. I still love my girl Eponine, too, but I know the musical especially downplayed her sharper, more flawed actions/characterization, which is a real shame.
Andrew Davies said that she was an awful character in the book who contributed nothing and that he was going to make her “strong and optimistic” (because “optimistic” isn’t her main character trait in the book or anything). Proceeded to make her only care about her boyfriend, hate on convicts and be inherently beautiful and pure. Oh and she faints a lot and runs outside hysterically during an insurrection, such agency! Ultimately she ends up as I suppose the second choice of Marius, who in this version now has wet dreams about and spies on Eponine, who now has tonnes of sex appeal, because prematurely aged street urchins = Hot Stuff?
He (Davies) chose to make Eponine sexually manipulative and Cosette only a target of desire, having no sexual feelings of her own, and basically morphs them into Marius’ choice of fuckable whore or marriagable virgin. How someone can read the book and get to THAT I have no clue, which is why I think he probably was inspired by the musical he apparently despises. The lady doth protest…
Anyway, from the point of view of someone who watched it having read the book recently, this version really does wrong by the younger generation characters.
My groans increased with every additional sentence of that description. Maybe one day some brave soul will give these characters the respect they deserve!
I loved the new Les Miserables. It inspired me to read the book. I just bought a copy a few days ago – and it is 1260 pages. Hope the characters of Marius and Cosette have more depth in the book than they did on TV.