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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Monthly Movie Review - Les Misérables

This past Christmas Day was especially exciting for the Friday family—and not just because of the festivities associated with the holiday—but because of the cinematic opening of one of our favorite musicals, Les Misérables. All of us couldn’t wait until Christmas night where we could step into the world of nineteenth century Paris where Jean Valjean, Inspector Javert, and a host of other downtrodden Frenchman sang their way through the drama of poverty, tragedy, anarchy, and rebellion. My husband and I experienced the play ages ago in Chicago and London and then this summer in Atlanta with the entire family. It is still one of the most moving and exhilarating productions I have seen on stage. And with some of our favorite actors starring in the key movie roles—Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, and Anne Hathaway—it was sure to be a night to remember.

While the movie was wonderful and entertaining, there were some elements of the film that the viewer has to get past. First of all, it is long, running over two and a half hours, the drama is heavy and intense with very little comedic breaks, much of the singing is filmed in tight close-ups, and then there is Hugh Jackman looking like an old man and Russell Crowe and his less-than-stellar singing ability. While Crowe isn’t horrible, his voice seemed weak compared to the other talent. In fact, I would have to admit that all of the singing was a bit disappointing, with the exception of Eddie Redmayne, who plays Marius. But don’t let that stop you from getting to the theater if you haven’t seen the movie yet. Unlike a Broadway show where the songs and music sweep you into another world, the movie operates on a different level. It wasn’t the music, but the story and character development that transported me back to early 1800s France. Obviously the critics agree, based on its Golden Globe win and eight Academy Award nominations.

As a Christian, I was especially touched by Hugh Jackman’s role as Jean Valjean, a good man who finds himself on the wrong side of the law for having stolen a loaf of bread to feed a starving child. That sends him to a grueling prison where years of hard, bitter labor cause him to butt heads with the chain-gang guard, Javert, played by Crowe. Strength and fortitude help Valjean serve his time until he is released on parole, but despite a fresh start, the stigma of being an ex-convict haunts him. Finally, a chance encounter with a loving priest tempts him to steal again. But this time, grace and mercy are extended. The priest vouches for Valjean, claiming that the stolen goods were actually gifts and not contraband.

This turn of events surprises and confuses Valjean, sending him on a spiritual journey to discover who he truly is. “Who am I? Who is Jean Valjean?” he sings before a cross hanging on the chapel wall. Is he a number, known as Prisoner 24601, a sinful man long forgotten by a holy God? Or is he something much more? With the stolen goods in hand, Valjean flees his parole and reinvents himself, embarking on a quest to discover the answer to this question. But at every turn, he is hounded by Javert, who reminds him that he is just a number, a parole violator, thief, and criminal, who deserves hard labor, imprisonment, and even death.

Throughout the movie, the themes of love, mercy, forgiveness, and grace are beautifully contrasted with the themes of law, judgment, guilt, and condemnation.  At the moment the priest shows mercy and grace to Valjean, his heart is flooded with the love of God. He starts a new life where this same mercy and grace rule his decisions—essentially, he travels down a Christ-like path where the letter of the law is violated in an effort to keep the spirit of truth behind it. The viewer sees this love extended to Fantine, a poor, doomed factory worker-turned prostitute (played by Hathaway), as well as Fantine’s little girl, Cosette, who he takes as his own child after Fantine’s death. Years later, as a group of young anarchists stage a revolt, Valjean extends grace once more by helping Javert escape capture and by rescuing Cosette’s love, Marius, from certain death.  

Valjean’s problem is that his past life hovers over him like a dark cloud in the person of Javert, the vigilant police officer, threatening to bring the escaped Prisoner 24601 to justice. Javert is driven by the perfection of keeping the letter of the law, relentlessly confronting the proponent of grace, almost like a Pharisee in a Gospel account seeking to destroy Jesus the Messiah. I found it interesting that Javert always donned a perfectly groomed uniform and carefully walked the edge of high buildings and bridges, looking down at the world below. One false slip would sent him tumbling down into destruction, but his self-righteous, perfect law-keeping give him a false sense of security.

At the close of the movie, when Javert has his final showdown with Valjean, he realizes he has met his match. His laws and rules are powerless against the love, forgiveness, and sacrifice displayed by a man like Valjean who swims through the sewers of Paris, risking everything to rescue a wayward boy like Marius. At that moment, he realizes Valjean is not some numbered, meaningless convict destined for destruction, but is a truly good and righteous man. Being a Bible study teacher, I thought of Paul’s teachings in the New Testament letters that the law was fulfilled and fully completed in the person of Jesus Christ, the picture of truth and grace. Where sin and lawlessness abound, grace much more abounds! The law, as perfect as it may be, will never exceed grace!   

***Spoiler Alert***

While theologically there are problems with comparing this story to the Gospel of grace, Christian themes are still present, adding powerfully to the story.  The highlight of the movie comes at the end where Valjean dies in a convent, having fled Cosette and Marius’ wedding to spare them the pain of his past. Hugh Jackman was beyond wonderful in these scenes! I had to bite my cheek to keep from sobbing like an infant, and unfortunately I had forgotten the tissues!

Valjean makes his peace with God, having lived a full life because of the love that has been in his heart. With Cosette and Marius by his side, he dies peacefully, hearing the familiar voice of Fantine. His spirit follows her to join the souls of the fallen men and women who so diligently fought for freedom from bondage and tyranny. But Cosette and Marius are left to start a new, happy life devoid of the tragic pain that has plagued Valjean for so long. 

The final image is one to remember—of Valjean and all the fallen heroes singing that wonderful song, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” Even in death and destruction, there is hope for a better tomorrow, a better world to come. We believers in Jesus Christ know that day is coming, soon and very soon!

Les Misérables is truly a magnificent, glorious time at the cinema! Don’t miss it!

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