PHOTO BY KEVIN FAINGNAERT
In the new six-part Les Misérables miniseries, Dominic West steps into the iconic role of Jean Valjean, a character who has been played by Liam Neeson, Hugh Jackman, and Gérard Depardieu. But finding a new Valjean wasn’t the toughest casting decision for the series, which starts airing on PBS’s Masterpiece this month (after having premiered on the BBC in December). That honor went to the City of Light itself, which, it turns out, required a convincing stand-in.
“Victor Hugo’s Paris was a medieval city of crumbling narrow streets and dark alleys,” director Tom Shankland explains. “Those beautiful boulevards we think of today didn’t exist in the era of the novel.” To approximate the look and feel of the pre-Haussmann city, Shankland eschewed Paris for less-modernized towns across Belgium— Brussels, Namur, Huy, Ghent—as well as Sedan, near the French Ardennes.
The above scene, in which Valjean has just rescued the orphaned Cosette (Mailow Defoy) from a life of servitude, was filmed on the St. Michael’s Bridge in Ghent. “I fell in love with St. Michael’s Bridge from the first moment I saw it,” Shankland says of the neo-Gothic structure, which he chose because it offered a visual metaphor for Valjean crossing over into his new role as a father and Cosette finding freedom—and because it looks centuries older than its 1910 construction date “I was so obsessed with shooting there that I relocated four other scenes under the bridge to justify the expense of us traveling to Ghent to get my shot.”
While Shankland often referred to the highly detailed source material for reference—“Hugo’s novel is a treasure trove of information about buildings, clothes, philosophy, mortality, how to build the perfect barricade,” he notes— the director points out that historical accuracy isn’t everything. “Each space has to be a psychological landscape as well as a real one,” he says. “If a location felt mythic, then that was more important than being a purist about the past.”