Les Miserable, a second take

Review of Les Miserables, Directed by Tom Hooper

By COYLE NEAL

“Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.” Luke 17:33

I went into Les Miserables without having read the book or seen the musical or previous film adaptations (though I have read The Hunchback of Notre Dame), so please be aware that this is a review by a noob. That said, the movie is fantastic. While of course I can’t speak to whether or not it is faithful to the book or musical, I can say that there are seven reasons to go see this movie. Six of them are: “Sasha Baron Cohen” and “Helena Bonham Carter.” Both of these are people that I have tended to loathe when cast in leading roles (see—or better, don’t see—Borat and Twelfth Night ) and love when in supporting parts (despite how slow the film was, Cohen was fantastic in Hugo, as was Carter in Big Fish). These two absolutely dominate the roles of the innkeeper and his wife, and alone are worth the price of admission.

The seventh reason (because all good theological lists come in sevens), is for the picture we are given in the film of being born again. [spoiler alert from here out]

There are three major turning points in the movie for Jean Valjean. In the first, after being forgiven for stealing from a church and admonished not to waste his forgiveness on a dissolute life, Valjean resolves to put to death his old ways and take up a new, reformed life (though he has to break parole in order to do so). We next see him having done just that and living as a prosperous factory owner and mayor. Among other things, he uses his influence and wealth to rescue Cosette, the child of one of his employees whom he (indirectly) wronged.

His past catches up with him, however, when someone else is accused of being the parole-breaker Jean Valjean. Once again, he gives up his life as a factory owner and mayor, reveals himself as Valjean so that the innocent man is spared, and flees with Cosette.

The two spend years on the run, until Cosette meets a young noble revolutionary named Marius and falls in love. Valjean sees that the two are in love and rescues Marius from the climactic final battle, destroying his own health in the process. This one last time he gives up his life with Cosette—and his physical life to boot—and is escorted into heaven by Cosette’s mother.

I have seen few better pictures of the Christian doctrine of a new life. All too often we are told that what we need to do in order to be made right with God, to get into His good graces, is to shape up. If only we will be better people, God will be our buddy, give us everything we want, and let us live with him forever.

As Christians, however, we understand that what we all need is not such shallow moral reform, but rather something much deeper and more fundamental. As C.S. Lewis said, we don’t need to mow the lawn, we need to plow the whole thing under and start over. (I can never remember which book he said that in—Mere Christianity, I think?) What we need is to be born again—to lay down our old life and be given something completely new in its place. What happens repeatedly to Valjean in Les Mis is a picture of what happens once and for all to the Christian through the process of regeneration. This is the act wherein God puts to death the old person and gives new life; where He nails our old lives to the cross and fills us with the Holy Spirit; where we become new people.(Ephesians 2:1-10) Just as Valjean gives up his old lives and receives in their place something completely new and better, so Christians give up the life of sin and rebellion against God, and receive the Holy Spirit and the promise of eternity in the presence of God.

So ignore the naysayers, and go see Les Mis. It’s well worth your time.

If you want to know more about the New Life, Wayne Grudem has an excellent piece on it here.

Dr. Coyle Neal lives in Washington, DC. He does not regularly break into song.

  • ben frank

    There was a time when actors shined,
    When their voices were aloft,
    And their singing, inviting.
    There was a time when the audience wasn’t deaf (or blind),
    And the screen had songs
    And the way the songs sung, exciting.
    There was a time,
    Then it all went wrong.

    I’ve seen the scene that Anne won by,
    Where she tried
    But life was missing.
    I screamed that Crowe would just die;
    I dreamed that Hugh could be forgiven.
    Then I was bummed, for twenty I paid;
    My dough and time they stole and I wasted.
    There’s no refund I’m afraid,
    For songs ill-sung by names profitably pasted.

    “But the actors sing it live!”
    The media voices yelled with thunder,
    As publicists play their part,
    As they turn their screams to shame.

    DVD’s coming this summer for fans to buy,
    To fill their days with anxious wonder:
    “Is this really better than live?”
    But his cash was gone when autumn came.

    And still I dream plays on screen are good to see,
    That stage and film can mesh together.
    But there are dreams that cannot be,
    Good actors don’t mean the singing’s better.

    And singing is a musical’s reason to be,
    So different from that hell that I was watching.
    No different now from what it seemed,
    This flick has killed me with the scenes I’d seen.


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