The Compelling Narrative of Les Miserables: Movie Review
Drawing from both the musical and novel that bears its name, the cinematic version of Les Misérables is a story wonderfully told, with all of the tragedy and beauty that often marks the human experience. Themes of love, law, justice, grace, redemption and revolution (to name a few) run concurrently through this film from beginning to end. The story is set during a volatile time in France’s proud history dating from 1815 through the June rebellion in the 1830’s. The seeds of revolution served as the background for understanding the life of Jean Valjean, the story’s protagonist .The film begins with him working as a prisoner under the watchful eye of Inspector Javert, the film’s antagonist. The film follows Valjean’s release from prison, subsequent break from parole, and attempt at constructing a new life while continually being pursued by the resilient Javert. The story is full of subplots that continually connect these two men.
The experience of watching the film served as an invitation to explore the film’s themes in more detail. I was reminded that the pathos of well-told story has the ability to touch anyone who is willing to let it. As someone who is not a film critic, I’m happy to let those who are judge the film on those merits. In addition, those who have studied Hugo’s novel as students of literature are no doubt more qualified to speak authoritatively on the books content. However, as someone interested in providing metaphors, examples and language to speak more meaningfully about the Christian narrative, this film is worth reviewing.
It would be quite an undertaking to flesh out many of the themes found in this movie in great detail. That work should be done by anyone interested in connecting the dots of how mediums like film lend itself to the larger conversation. What I’d like to do here is briefly touch on a few of the characters and themes in hopes that your own curiosity would be roused, and the conversation furthered. Any reflection on Les Misérables has to begin with comments about Jean Valjean and Javert.
One man, through the course of extraordinary events, becomes a prisoner, fugitive, respected mayor and lastly, a sojourner. One man, born into a family of criminals, commits himself to upholding the law. Both have identities that they’d like to either forget or change. Both men’s destinies are mysteriously intertwined with each other’s. Jean Valjean, after his release from prison finds refuge within the presence of the church and encounters the compassion of a local bishop. He experiences the undeserved grace of God through the Bishop of Digne, who reminds Valjean of his innate dignity as a man made in God’s image. There was more to the man than just being prisoner 24601, the lens through which Javert sees Valjean for much of the movie.
Jean Valjean’s response to the grace extended by the bishop is to change is his name and start life anew. As Mayor Madeleine, Valjean’s life becomes one where his social ethic mirrors his new found faith. When the hired hand responsible for the oversight of Valjean’s factory refuses to act fairly with Fantine, Valjean commits to correct the wrong caused by his manager as if he himself had caused it. Valjean’s past was ever before him, as his life continues to not only be intertwined with Javert’s, but also with Fantine and Cosette, Fantine’s daughter. Valjean’s love of mercy and justice is challenged when, given the opportunity to forever leave his past and Jean Valjean behind, he refuses to let a stranger suffer in his place.
Inspector Javert’s life-long pursuit of Jean Valjean is equally compelling. As a man born to convicts, he gives his whole life to the pursuit of upholding the law of the land. Javert sees the beauty and order of the created world, and sees, at least at some level, that his work is an extension of God’s in the universe. Yet, for whatever reason, he fails to see Valjean as anything more than prisoner 24601. What was it that made Javert think that as a child born in prison, he could change his destiny by becoming a man of the law while simultaneously believing that sort of change was impossible for Valjean? A person’s nature is incapable of changing, so thought Javert, and perhaps that perspective became the point of his own undoing. The tragedy of Javert’s character is not that he is ugly, but that he is sincere, upright, noble and even capable of empathy.
These tensions are part of what marks the beauty of this film. Each person we are introduced to (and there are quite a bit more than what’s mentioned here) will often remind us of people we know. Some will even inspire us. How would our cultural revolutions be different if every minister of the Gospel had the compassion of the Bishop of Digne? Our displeasure with some of characters (the Thénardiers for example) will remind us that morality and the ethical are inseparable. A moral compass does exist. We are even faced with the reality that sometimes, the most straight forward explanation for any given scenario may not always be where the truth is discovered. Even the socio/political context of the film, the French Revolution, forces us to ask the question of how should society be remade when those on the margins are left to their last resort? The movie ends powerfully enough, when Jean Valjean, again finding refuge within the walls of the church, is given the gracious invitation to the pass from this life to the next. What happens next? Let’s just say that I think the closing scene would make for some great conversation.
George McDonald once said, “The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is–not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself.” Movies like Les Misérables have the power to rouse the conscience and awaken the things already in us. We are touched by the subjective nature of the story because we can often relate with the characters in the film. When themes like love, justice, mercy and revolution undergird a film’s narrative, we are invited to inquire about the transcendent as well. As long as there are films like Les Misérables, there will always be the kind of examples we need to help us understand (and converse about) the kind of grace that the Christian narrative promises.