Mercy, Love and Seeing the Face of God: A Review of “Les Miserables”

The new film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical “Les Miserables” is so powerful, the Apocalypse has been postponed so people can see it when it opens on December 25.

The Christmas debut is appropriate since it’s the most profoundly Christian story for mainstream audiences that’s been produced in years. Far from being a niche movie just designed for religious viewers, this is a big budget drama whose universal values will appeal to anyone yearning for riveting storytelling, engaging acting, and songs that will leave you singing for days, even years, on end. And in light of the recent killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, one element of the story might seem particularly resonant, relevant and comforting.

The movie begins in 1815 France with a bruised, beaten and almost-unrecognizable Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, a prisoner who is finally being released on parole after 20 years of slave labor for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving family. Police Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) believes he’ll see Valjean arrested again because criminals don’t change their ways.

Unable to find work due to his background as a convict, Valjean becomes like a feral animal, filled with rage and resentment. Unexpectedly, he is welcomed into the home of a Christ-like bishop (Colm Wilkinson) who sees the abuse he’s been enduring. He feeds Valjean, prays with him, and gives him a bed in which to sleep. Valjean repays this kindness by stealing the bishop’s silverware.

When the police catch him, they ask the bishop to press charges. That leads to one of the most touching examples of mercy in any artform, be it film, TV, theater or literature. The bishop tells the police that he had given Valjean the silver as a gift, then adds that he meant to give him two expensive silver candlesticks as well. The police have no choice but to let Valjean go.

Both Wilkinson, as the epitome of Christian virtue, and Jackman, as the recipient of kindness for the first time in decades, play this scene beautifully. Jackman reacts to this unwarranted grace like it’s a shock to his system. He genuinely doesn’t know what to make of it.

But the bishop tenderly sings to him, “And remember this, my brother, / See in this some high plan. / You must use this precious silver / To become an honest man. / By the witness of the martyrs, / By the passion and the blood, / God has raised you out of darkness: / I have bought your soul for God.”

Even if you’ve seen this scene in the play, the fact that film allows for closeups of the actor’s faces adds a new level of depth to the situation. (And fans of the original theatrical production will find an added layer of depth in the show’s original Valjean – Wilkinson – playing the bishop here.)

The better angels of Valjean’s nature finally rise to the surface because someone else made the effort to draw them out. He takes advantage of this second chance, adopts a new identity and tries to live an honorable life. Of course, this also makes him a fugitive from justice who Javert will continually pursue.

As the story proceeds, we meet Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a young woman who is fired from her job after 19th century France’s version of “mean girls” expose her secret of having a 10-year-old daughter out of wedlock. Forced to become a prostitute to make money, the demeaning nature of this life takes a tragic toll on Fantine.

Her only comfort as she dies comes from Valjean. When he discovers he owned the factory from which she was fired, he is guilt-stricken and agrees to raise her daughter, Cosette, as his own. Whereas the bishop introduced Valjean to mercy, Cosette brings love into his life for the first time. It is these two virtues—mercy and love—that lay at the heart of the story.

The ensuing years aren’t easy because Valjean still needs to live in the shadows. And with talk in Paris about revolution due to severe societal inequality, Valjean is tested in a new way that threatens his moral code, commitment to God and very life.

Though all the performances are excellent, the film rests on Jackman’s and Hathaway’s shoulders. In Jackman’s case, it’s the strength of character he displays as Valjean – both in action-driven moments like a sword fight with Javert, and in tender moments like his promise to Fantine on her deathbed – that make him shine.

Hathaway’s performance, on the other hand, conveys its strength through her character’s vulnerability. She is a broken woman whose despair and feelings of abandonment by God are heartbreaking, especially when performing Fantine’s signature song, “I Dreamed a Dream:” “I had a dream my life would be / So different from this hell I’m living / So different now from what it seemed / Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”

This is also one of the scenes in which director Tom Hooper’s decision to record the actor’s singing live on the set instead of in a recording studio pays off in a spectacular way. Hathaway is so ‘in the moment’ here, it’s hard to believe the song would have packed the same emotional punch had it been performed at a different time and out of context.

Russell Crowe as Javert surprised me. The character is basically the villain of the story, yet Crowe plays him in a way that I found myself feeling a little pity for him. Like Valjean, he’s a devoted Christian. But he’s never evolved beyond an Old Testament-like rigid adherence to the letter of the law. Put simply, he doesn’t understand mercy.

When it’s offered to him near the end of the story, he’s discombobulated, much like Valjean was in the beginning. But whereas Valjean accepted his second chance and adjusted his worldview, Javert struggles mightily with this concept that would compromise his lifelong belief system.

In a sense, Valjean and Javert are like Peter and Judas in the Bible. Peter is humble enough to accept forgiveness and forge a new path in life after betraying Jesus. Judas, on the other hand, despairs after his betrayal. His pride stands in the way of him accepting mercy.

The film includes notable performances from two lesser-known actors as well. First, Samantha Barks as Eponine, a role she plays in the theatrical production. Though she’s a criminal like her parents, she sees how empty that life is and yearns for something better. She sees the possibility of that dream being fulfilled when she falls in love with Marius, who himself is in love with Cosette. Barks, whose naturally kind eyes add to Eponine’s melancholy-but-hopeful demeanor, sings from the heart (while crying in the rain, no less), making her a standout.

The young Cosette, played by 10-year-old Isabelle Allen, is also quite a discovery. An actress whose only experience up until recently was co-starring in a school play at the Moira House Girls School in England, makes a huge impression as Valjean’s adopted daughter. She doesn’t project a forced cuteness and innocence like some young actors. Instead, she conveys a genuine charm, making it easy to believe how quickly Valjean comes to love her as his daughter.

Set design, makeup, costume and casting deserve praise for recreating the stark contrast between the haves and have-nots in 19th century France. The poor truly look miserable, especially when surrounded by the more fortunate who can barely tolerate them. It’s a vivid reminder of what a people and society looks like that abandons its responsibilities to “the least of these.”

My only minor critiques of the film are that the second half, which deals with the attempted revolution, seems to drag a little – and I found some of the fight scenes at the barricade a little hard to follow. But the brilliant musical score and lyrics by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel and Herbert Kretzmer are so powerful that they always keep whatever’s going on in the story engaging.

That’s especially true with the film’s signature lyric, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Sung during the movie’s most powerful scene, it becomes even more meaningful in light of the loss of lives endured by 27 families in Newtown, Connecticut last week. Without revealing too much to those unfamiliar with the story, it should be a source of hope to anyone who has endured the loss of a loved one.

At the risk of sounding like Jerry Maguire, we live in a cynical world. Yet “Les Miserables” is a story for our times about personally choosing holiness when the world around us does the opposite. Its characters find their strength through love, sacrifice and self-denial. Along the way, they discover redemption, unwarranted grace, and even the communion of saints.

In essence, “Les Miserables” is a perfect film for the Christmas season. It will likely stay with you long after Christmas is over.

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About Tony Rossi

After graduating from St. John's University in New York with degrees in Communications and English, Tony Rossi found a job at the Catholic media organization, The Christophers, that allowed him to indulge his interest in religion, media, and pop culture. He served as The Christophers' TV producer for 11 years, and is currently the host and producer of the organization's radio show/podcast Christopher Closeup, writer and editor of their syndicated Light One Candle column, and producer/scriptwriter of the annual Christopher Awards ceremony.

  • Gina

    That is one classic lead sentence. :-) Love it, and love the review.

    One thought on Javert’s religion — we’re never actually told he’s a Christian, are we? The novel actually says he’s an atheist. I know he at least pays lip service to God in the musical, but I don’t remember him actually being presented as a Christian. Just musing aloud . . .

    • Tony Rossi

      Thanks, Gina. And thanks for all the Breakpoint links as well which I just discovered recently.

      Interesting question regarding, Javert. My impression in the film is that he talks (or sings) to God at various points and refers to the Bible. You’re probably right that he’s never officially established as a Christian. I may have made that leap in my own mind instead of seeing it overtly spelled out.

      • Gina

        I guess I can see how one might come to that conclusion. (And you’re welcome! :-) )

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  • Katie

    I’ve been so eager to see this movie, but hesitant because it’s rated PG-13 for sexuality, which concerns me. How would you rate the severity of the sexual content in this movie? I’m familiar with the story, but saw the theatrical production just once 10 years ago. I’d love your insight!

    • Tony Rossi

      Hi Katie, There’s no actual nudity. There are scenes involving cleavage-baring prostitutes wearing low cut dresses and coming on to men. And there’s one sexually suggestive shot that I can remember. But honestly, I’ve seen worse on TV commercials. I wouldn’t let it deter you from seeing the film. If you have young kids, that’s another story. The movie as a whole would likely be a little much for them in terms of subject matter. I hope this helps.

  • http://CatholicNews Thomas Lynch

    We will have to wait a while for the film to reach Australia but I will look forward to seeing it

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  • Tim Drake

    Great review Toni. Thanks for the preview. I can’t wait. Christmas can’t come too soon.

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  • Magdalen

    I’m waiting so eagerly for it to come out! I’m sure it will be amazing. I won’t get to see it till January, though, since I’m in the UK right now and want to see it with my friends.

  • Paul Rodden

    Here’s a Protestant take on it:

    Sadly, despite their excellent apologetical work (the founder being co-author of a book on Relativism with Frank Beckwith), they just can’t get over it… :)

  • Ambaa

    It is a very Christian story and yet it seems to avoid the problem that many Christian stories have of reaching a non-Christian audience. I am firmly not a Christian and have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about Christianity, and yet I love Les Miz. I see in Val Jean all the Christian virtues, yet I never find him obnoxious or self-righteous.

    I think one thing that really helps is that the story does not hide from pain. Modern Christian storytelling seems to steer away from the fear and despair because expressing that might show a lack of faith. Instead avoiding those feelings just whitewashes the religion and makes it seem weak.

    This is the only Christian story I have ever connected with and I love it.

    • Apathetic Atheist

      Just wanted to concur with this. I’m (obviously) an atheist while my family remains Christian. Les Miserables is one of my favorite stories and I went to see it with my mother over the holidays.

      While one would expect that I would not connect with this story, I did. In this story, the religious figures truly represent the good side of religion — giving to the poor without expectation or a sermon, mercy that triumphs over what is just. It’s the way I wish religion could be. Watching the characters struggle with it and what it means gives a weight and levity to it that many Christian parables lack. So many of these stories want the conversion and the reward to come cheaply and are trying to sell you Christianity rather than showing how good Christianity can be.

      While I find that faith, once lost, is nearly impossible to find again, I found this a very touching story and had more Christians acted like Jean Valjean and the bishop and less like Javert, I might never have lost my faith to begin with.

      “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

      • Tony Rossi

        I appreciate your honest and thoughtful comment inspired by the previous atheist commenter, and agree that the world could use many more Jean Valjeans. Though they might be hard to find, the Valjeans are out there. Your insights on Christian storytelling are also valid. Sometimes the focus is more on evangelizing than telling a story, so the ability to reach a wider audience is lost. I dealt with that topic a couple of years ago in an article called “Movies, Beauty, Truth and Swear Words.” I apologize for the self-promotion, but here’s the link if you’re interested:

        Thank you again for your comment.

    • Tony Rossi

      I appreciate your honest and thoughtful comment, and agree that the world could use many more Jean Valjeans. Your insights on Christian storytelling are also valid. Sometimes the focus is more on evangelizing than telling a story, so the ability to reach a wider audience is lost. I dealt with that topic a couple of years ago in an article called “Movies, Beauty, Truth and Swear Words.” I apologize for the self-promotion, but here’s the link if you’re interested:

      Thank you again for your comment.

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  • Manny

    I really didn’t think it was that good a movie. Yes I loved the themes and the Christian imagery, but I have to be objective. The singing, except for Ann Hathaway, was terrible, and the acting was for the most part mediocre. But I think the movie couldn’t make up its mind as to whether it wanted to be in a realism genre, say like the novel, or a musical, which is different. So it came out discordant, at least for me. I give a more detailed review at my blog, if anyone is interested:

    • Manny

      I’m sorry, this is the link to review at my blog:

      • Donald Ramsey

        I am an actor and a 28-year-long fan of this almost-sacred musical. I love this musical, far and away, more than anything in this world. I had 24 hour a day suicidal depression beginning in 1981 that lasted for decades. Les Mis’ is one of the things that saved my life. I have seen this musical, on stage, on dvd, on vhs, over 300 times. With that in mind: I love this film