Musical movie spectacle points toward home
Based on Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables tells a sweeping story of romance, revolution, and redemption in early 19th-century France. At its heart is a testimony to the transforming power of grace.
The movie opens with Jean Valjean, a convict serving a 19-year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child, toiling under the watchful gaze of Inspector Javert. On his release, Valjean is told by Javert (in song; virtually all the dialogue in this movie is sung) that as a parolled criminal he will forever retain his convict’s identity – his number 24601 – and that he will be perpetually watched by Javert lest he break the terms of his parole.
Branded a convict by his identity papers and never given a chance at honest work, Valjean does just what Javert expects: he steals from a compassionate bishop. When confronted with the theft, however, the bishop tells the authorities the stolen items were gifts to Valjean and, moreover, he adds a pair of candlesticks to the purloined goods. This encounter with forgiveness and extravagant generosity leads Val Jean to a spiritual crisis out of which he resolves to leave his past behind and live a new life of grace and service to others.
This new life, however, runs afoul of Inspector Javert’s strict interpretation of the law. The remainder of the movie deals with the struggle between the two men and their respective ideologies.
Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) has pulled off a real coup in Les Miserables: carried by strong acting and singing, it’s a large-scale Hollywood spectacle with compelling characters that raises important social and theological concerns. One quibble would be with the final scene of the martyred young revolutionaries triumphant in the afterlife – an apparent argument for universalism or salvation by conviction. On the other hand, when was the last time we encountered in popular media a representative of the church who was neither laughable nor tainted with perfidy but was a genuine reflection of Christ?
Above all, the winsome presentation of lavish grace in Les Miserables is a compelling reason to see this movie. How many of us as Christ-followers still live chained to our pasts, our identities rooted in a guilt- and works-based “convict number” understanding of ourselves? Do we really practise the “unforced rhythms of grace” (Matthew 11:28, The Message) in the assurance, as Philip Yancey reminds us, that “there is nothing we can do to make God love us any more or less” (emphasis added)?
There is much in Les Miserables to warm our hearts and turn us toward the one in whom we find our true home.
—Graeme Isbister lives in Chilliwack, B.C., and attends Highland Community (MB) Church, Abbotsford, B.C.