Grace Accepted; Grace Rejected—A Review of Les Misérables

Review of Les Misérables, Directed by Tom Hooper

By ALEXIS NEAL

After years of imprisonment and hard labor, one-time thief Jean Valjean is finally released from prison, only to discover that, for an ex-con life on the outside is harder than he expected. When the Bishop of Digne unexpectedly takes pity on him, Valjean promptly repays the Bishop’s kindness by making off with all the silver he can carry. Valjean is apprehended by the authorities, of course, but the Bishop insists that the silver was a gift, gives Valjean the rest of the silver as well, and admonishes him to use these gifts to build a better life. Which is precisely what Valjean does—breaking his parole, yes, but ultimately prospering and doing good. He even adopts the orphaned daughter of an impoverished prostitute. But leaving his old life behind proves difficult, as the dogged Inspector Javert is determined to catch the missing parolee. Events come to a climax in Paris some years later, as Valjean’s adopted daughter—now grown—falls in love with a young revolutionary and Javert finally closes in on his quarry.

The story is fairly well known—whether you read the classic novel in high school, watched one of the many film or television adaptations, saw a live performance of the musical, or, like me, just listened compulsively to the soundtrack. Now, for the first time, movie audiences have the opportunity to experience the moving musical score on the big screen—and with a killer cast that more than lives up to the excellent material.

The standouts here are Hugh Jackman (as Valjean) and Anne Hathaway (as Fantine, the prostitute), both of whom have netted Golden Globe nominations for their performances and will likely be nominated for Academy Awards as well. But theirs are not the only noteworthy performances here. Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are downright brilliant as Mr. and Mrs. Thénardier, the corrupt innkeepers who house Cosette—for a price—prior to her adoption by Valjean. Young Daniel Huddlestone is a positive scene-stealer as the impish urchin Gavroche, and Amanda Seyfried brings personality and life to the otherwise insipid role of Cosette, Valjean’s adopted daughter. Personally, I always thought Cosette was dull as toast, but Seyfried sparkles in the role. Less sparkly was Eddie Redmayne as Marius, the young revolutionary with whom Cosette is besotted. He really did seem dull as toast. And I confess I was also rather underwhelmed by Russell Crowe’s turn as Javert. (But then, I’ve never really gotten Russell Crowe, so I may not be a reliable judge.) I do know that his singing, while not precisely bad, is definitely some of the weakest in the film (see also Richard Gere in Chicago). Still, it’s a good cast, and while not everyone can quite measure up to the standard set by Jackman and Hathaway (and SBC and HBC and Seyfried), they certainly don’t embarrass themselves.

For those like myself who are less familiar with Les Mis, a word about the musical: the entire show is sung. There is no spoken dialogue. This can feel a bit unnatural at times, not least because Hooper elected to record the vocals live on set and fill in the orchestration after the fact. Typically, movie musicals require the actors to lip sync (and act) along with their own pre-recorded vocals, an approach that makes for decent singing, but severely limits the potential for more varied and spontaneous acting choices. The end result of Hooper’s method is a much more raw film than we’re used to, at least among movie musicals. Jackman and Hathaway often sound as if their lines are being wrung out of them—they are not so much melodies and lyrics as inarticulate cries of anguish. Which makes for some stellar acting—likely some of the best ever seen in a movie musical (even if it does tempt Hooper to repeatedly plunk the camera down for prolonged and unvarying close-ups of the sniveling singers.) This can also be rather uncomfortable, even occasionally jarring. I guess I’m unaccustomed to that level of emotion in song. Emotional musicians may wail and cry, but they rarely whimper. Among all the actors, Seyfried seems to be the most at-home with song-as-speech (she also seems to strain less for notes outside her range). This may well be because she is tasked with communicating the more classic Broadway emotions—love, hope, wonder, excitement, etc.—but Seyfried still deserves kudos for a job well done.

But enough about the film as film. Let’s talk about the film as story. Few stories are as fraught with gospel themes as Les Misérables. At the start of the story, Valjean is, quite simply, a sinner. He has stolen, yes, and he has tried to escape, but his worst crime is by far his burgling of the very man who showed him kindness when all the world was against him. He repaid the Bishop’s generosity with evil. There is no excuse for his behavior. It is reprehensible. Yet, in response to the betrayal, this treachery, the Bishop extends to Valjean still more kindness. Valjean deserves to go back to prison for what he has done, but the Bishop saves him. The Bishop absorbs the loss—pays for Valjean’s crime in a very real way—and more than that, he gives Valjean more than what he stole in the first place. This is, by definition, a display of grace—unmerited favor. And Valjean, who has survived years of hard labor and suffering, is utterly destroyed by this grace. He realizes that he does not deserve the favor he has received. Someone else stepped in, saved him, bore the cost of his disgusting sin, and, more than that, is now giving him a chance for a new life. Valjean, prostrated and humbled by this offer of grace, accepts and sets off to live a life worthy of the grace he has received.

Javert, on the other hand, has no understanding of grace. He is upstanding, incorruptible, and an unfailing servant of Justice. But those in his path must realize that with Javert, justice is all they will ever get—no less than justice, but no more. Sins must be punished—‘Those who falter and those who fall must pay the price.’ He hunts Valjean relentlessly, and is unmoved by Valjean’s apparent change of heart. When Valjean has an opportunity to kill Javert and chooses to spare his life, Javert lets Valjean go (for the time being), and is immediately so horrified by his lapse of duty that he kills himself.

Or at least, that’s what he tells himself. Really, even worse for Javert than the knowledge that he failed in his duty is the realization that he, Javert, received grace from a convict. A sinner spared his life, and now he must either accept this act of grace and the change it will inevitably bring about in his life (for grace accepted always changes us) or reject it. And, of course, this is what he does. Because the knowledge that he received grace from anyone, let alone a criminal, is too much for him to deal with. He is determined to stand or fall by his works alone, not by the grace of another. And so, like all who choose this approach, he falls.

The contrast between their responses to grace is quite striking, and terribly sad. Both men, in their soliloquies, sing about being spared, about effort, about failure—“I am reaching but I fall.” To one man, this fall opens up a new life. He admits that he is a sinner who can only be saved by grace. To him, the offer of grace is good news. To the other, any fall is final, and to be ‘in need of grace’ is unendurable. To him, the offer of grace is the worst possible news.

Let us embrace the gift of grace with open arms this holiday season, giving praise to the One who paid the price for our sin to give us new life.

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Alexis Neal is an attorney in the Washington, D.C., area. She regularly reviews young adult literature at www.childrensbooksandreviews.com and everything else at quantum-meruit.blogspot.com.


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