On October 8th 1985 the musical of Les Misérables opened in London; twenty-seven years later it is one of the most beloved musicals of all time. Now after all that time the musical has come to the big screen in Tom Hooper’s adaptation. The film is a sweeping spectacle that does the music justice. Hooper had the actors actually sing their lines on set instead of the usual practice of lip-singing and then recording in the studio. What comes across on screen then is the raw emotion of the lyrics. This is a gritty story that does not shy away from the reality of the poor and desperate nature of almost every character. In fact, the realism of the filth and the look of characters, especially Fantine can be hard to watch.
There is something that is very frustrating about this film. Tom Hooper has shot the film almost exclusively in extreme close-ups on the actors. This works well in a few scenes and helps the audience feel the emotion of what is being sung, yet many times it just doesn’t work. The close-ups actually distract from the film. As you watch, you can never stop thinking about who is singing; “Oh that is Hugh Jackman or Anne Hathaway” is all that keeps running through your mind. It gives the feeling of being on the front row of the stage production with blinders on. The visuals in this film are stunning, but the audience is rarely treated to them because of the dedication to the close-up. This doesn’t ruin the film but it does leave many of the scenes feeling much colder and strangely more removed than immersing.
The last thing is the music itself. Each of the actors does a good job in giving emotion and depth to the performances. Unfortunately the vocals are not all on the same level. The true standouts are Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne. Anne is perfect in this film and it will be a crime if she does not win the Oscar and Golden Globe for her performance. Redmayne’s voice is the best of the cast and sounds the most like he belongs on stage.
This is a good film and worth seeing; but it could be so much better if the camera work was not so disappointingly distracting.
The real strength of this movie is the story itself. Jean Valjean is a thief, a man condemned under the law. In the eyes of the law he will always be seen as a thief. Even though he has served his time, he carries around the papers that constantly remind him that he is not truly free. His guilt before the law is ever present. He can find no work or true rest and is doomed to a life of poverty under this burden.
The law is unbending in its condemnation of Valjean, something must step in to redeem him. A priest shows him grace even in the face of his wrong-doing. Valjean has stolen all the silver from this priest’s house; he is caught on the road and returned to the monastery, fully expecting to be returned to prison. What happens next is the key, the priest shows him unmerited favor, he graciously corroborates Valjean’s story that the silver was a gift. Then he takes it one step further by giving him the best silver in the house, the candlesticks. The priest sings over Valjean, “God has raised you out of darkness: I have bought your soul for God.” Grace has been given. The power to set Valjean free from the comdemnation of the law has been granted. The law cannot save, it can only damn. Grace has the power to make all things new. This is why the Apostle Paul can say “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.” Valjean is a new man; he has cast off the bonds of the law, creating an identity that is rooted in grace, love and forgiveness.
Even in this new life, the law continues to hound. Javert is a man committed to the law; for him there is no other life. The law is king and grace is not something that he can even fathom. Because of his singular dedication to the law Javert pursues this thief with righteous passion. Through the twists in the story Valjean is given the life of Javert and instead of making a deal or a bargain for his own life; he freely and without reservation gives Javert grace. Javert’s commitment to the law is his undoing. He cannot live in a world where grace abounds. He has dedicated his life to rule-following and the idea that there can be any grace is intolerable to him. In the end the law destroys him. Grace has set Valjean free to forgive the great wrongs done against him, because he knows how much he has been forgiven. Javert cannot see grace because his stubborn self-righteousness blinds him to his own need for it.
Love is a key component to the change that comes over Valjean. Once he is extended grace he is able to open his heart again to others. His love for Cosette makes him new. He becomes a man devoted to others and the poor because of his new identity and perspective. Love and grace go hand in hand. In being set free from the bonds of the law he is actually given the power to live out its spirit better than he ever could apart from grace. Grace gives him the freedom to accept the faults of others and love them with reckless abandon.
The humility it takes to realize that we can never live up to our own expectations, let alone the expectations of a perfect God is astounding. Valjean is able to recognize the gift that is given him; the gift of grace. God offers this same gift to all of us. At this time of the year we are reminded of that almost more than any other. God steps into our world to offer us forgiveness and grace. He takes on our problem, and just like the priest in this film, offers us his grace even as we are actively engaged in rebellion against him. The choice is ours, live by the law which only has the power to damn or humble ourselves by receiving the free gift that is being offered to us. Grace, love and freedom wait on the other side; “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”