By Phil Boatwright
Before I saw the press screening for the film adaptation of the stage musical “Les Misérables,” I read two articles that tied the production together with the politically provocative Wall Street occupiers. Victor Hugo’s central story revolves around the morality tale of an escaped prisoner named Jean Valjean, who undergoes a life-altering experience while the obsessive Inspector Javert hunts him down. But these journalists exploited the political and social revolt, which only served as a backdrop to the main story. Like the film’s antagonist, they missed the point of Les Misérables’ biblical parable.
I have read Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Both reveal the evil that men can do to one another, but both also offer an insightful pathway to salvation, both spiritually and socially.
First things first: How’s the film? The highly anticipated movie opens Christmas Day and in my view it is the best film of the year.
Mr. Hugo’s 1,200-page novel addresses some of the most inspiring subjects ever placed on paper: Man can find redemption and he can replace anger and fear with compassion and faith. The most powerful component of the book, the plays and past movie versions has always been Jean Valjean’s conversion once he experienced God’s mercy. Great news — this same spiritual truth remains intact in this new, rather extraordinary rendition.
The bedeviled Inspector Javert lives by the letter of the law in hope of salvation, whereas Jean Valjean has been transformed by mercy shown him and lives the rest of his life governed by this newfound compassion. This change takes root once a man of God shows a kindness Valjean has never known. He is then transfigured by God’s love (which even changes his outer countenance, as evidenced in the film when Javert doesn’t recognize the very man he has been hunting).
Les Misérables is a parable that clearly conveys the difference between the Bible’s Old Testament, where man is dependent upon the laws of God in order to find deliverance, and the New Testament’s revelation of God’s sacrifice that paid our sin debt. This message is successfully and most passionately brought to this screen production.
It may be impossible to single out one talent, as no one associated with the film missed a step or musical cue (all the numbers were recorded during the filming, no lip-syncing). Both cast and crew took on the challenge of this screen adaptation respectfully, fully aware of the significance of the book’s theme. The vigilant director, Tom Hooper, used his camera to spellbind us and perfectly cast his two male leads. Javert (Russell Crowe) and Valjean (Hugh Jackman) are a symbolic yin and yang that represent what mankind is and what we can become.
Crowe’s Javert is not a villain. He’s an honorable man. But he has no comprehension of a love that can forgive all. He conducts his life by a code of honor, unable to accept weakness in others or himself. Javert just doesn’t get grace or forgiveness. The Oscar-winning actor gives dimension to a role that could have been stilted and pantomime villainous. Jackman as Valjean gives a pitch-perfect portrayal of a man who has felt God’s love. His character may not understand God’s charity, but his soul is reborn by it.
I said it may be impossible to single out one person from the production. I stand corrected. Anne Hathaway’s Oscar-worthy performance as Fantine, a degraded woman struggling to support her child, may be the best-written, best-acted female role ever. It is difficult to sit through her ordeals, as the little she has (her hair, her teeth, her virtue) are systematically taken from her in order that she might raise money to keep her child alive. Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” was a shared audience moment I’ll never forget. As the song ended, everyone in attendance applauded as if they were attending live theater. Indeed, there were several instances when the audience clapped as if needing to release their emotion and appreciation. The empathy in the movie theater was palpable. Her song delivery is the most powerful screen moment from this year and I would have to struggle to remember a finer performance from an actress.
At the end of a press conference that featured most of the cast, the producers and its director Hooper, I went up to Mr. Hooper as he was exiting the room and asked, “Mr. Hooper, how many takes did Anne need on that song?”
He said, “Eight. She had it in four, but she felt she could do more. And she did. I was only a few feet away from her and I felt the anguish of any human who has undergone such cruelty. The feeling on the set was electric, unlike anything I had ever felt at the end of a take.”
The weakest element of the production, for me, is the student revolution backdrop. While timely, as evidenced by the uprising seen by the have-nots toward the haves throughout the world, the film’s subplot fails to tell us just exactly what the disenfranchised expect. The uprisers kill soldiers and soldiers kill them, but nothing changes the establishment. Perhaps that’s the point. Fairness and justice don’t come by war or even law. They come from a change of heart. Don’t misread me; there is a time for war and a need for law. But as the film’s director wisely noted, “Real change starts with love for those we see around us.”
I recently contacted an actor who has been associated with the musical play for years. I wanted his input concerning Victor Hugo’s agenda.
Actor J. Mark McVey played the role of Valjean in Les Misérables more times than any other performer — 2,800 times or more. He’s traveled the world with the show. Mark is a devout believer in Christ and speaks eloquently of the rich Christian symbolism in the story of “Les Mis.” I asked Mark the following: Was Mr. Hugo saying a spiritual love is needed in order to change our world? Or did he also advocate a violent overthrow of corrupted political governing?
“I think he was doing a bit of both,” Mark said. “He certainly was an advocate for the power of spiritual love to move or shift the human heart to new understanding if not outright acceptance of grace. In the case of Valjean, Hugo showed the awakening of an animal that had clearly, at some point in his life, closed his heart to anything that resembled love or compassion.
“As for the political statement, Hugo was an advocate for human rights and could not help himself from commenting on his times. It might be unfair to say he advocated violence, but he certainly brought social issues to light and may even have gotten the ball rolling, as did others — Dickens for example — by giving a voice to the unheard masses.”
I’m sure Mark is correct concerning the author’s intent. But it is unmistakably the love aspect that affects everyone in the play. The revolt is ineffectual, whereas it is the spiritual love that eventually motivates every main character. Deeds of sacrifice and charity change everyone’s heart, except Javert, who becomes symbolic of the stalemate that results when the heart refuses to accept God’s grace.
So, how can we get compassion to change the deeds of those who rule over our political, social and economic wellbeing?
But God can.
Though there is some PG-13 content in the film, it is not there to be exploitive, but rather is used to give credence to the story and to viscerally work on our emotions. Bring hankies as you will be wounded by the injustices. Gratefully, you will also be uplifted by the film’s spiritual resonance. Les Misérables is the most gut-wrenching, yet profound film of the year.
Phil Boatwright is celebrating 25 years of writing about Hollywood from a Christian perspective. In addition to writing for Baptist Press, he reviews films for http://www.previewonline.org and is a regular contributor to “The World and Everything In it,” a weekly radio program from WORLD News Group. To visit the website of veteran “Les Miserables” actor J. Mark McVey, go to www.jmarkmcvey.com.