Victor Hugo’s epic story, “Les Misérables,” is set against the backdrop of 19th-century France, times of revolution and upheaval aimed at a culture dominated by the Catholic Church for many centuries. As most readers already know “Les Misérables” tells a moving story of broken dreams and unrequited love, of passion, sacrifice and redemption. It is a classic novel for a very good reason.
In the film version, released widely on Christmas Day, Hugh Jackman (photo) plays the central figure of the story, ex-prisoner Jean Valjean. Valjean was hunted for decades by a ruthless, but morally scrupulous policeman, by the name of Javert. Javert is played by the brilliant and much praised actor Russell Crowe. When Valjean breaks parole, after serving nineteen years in slavery for stealing bread for his starving family, Javert makes it his mission to find him and bring him to justice. In Hugo’s account Javert encounters Valjean on several occasions over a period of several decades, each time failing to secure his man. For those who have never read the book, or seen the play and now the movie, I will not spoil too much of the specific parts of the story. When Jean Valjean agrees to care for factory worker Fantine’s (Anne Hathaway) young daughter, Cosette, their lives are both changed forever. In the film version of the musical, replete with the musical performances of the stage throughout, the world’s longest-running musical now brings its power to the big screen in Tom Hooper’s “sweeping and spectacular interpretation of Hugo’s well-known story.”
I tried to see the film on Christmas Day evening but made the mistake of not buying tickets in advance. My screening was “sold out.” Yesterday I saw it in a matinee and the theater was still 65% full the day after Christmas. It runs for 158 minutes so it is long but well worth the time. Rarely do musicals work on screen but this one does and it does so marvelously. So much of the familiar musical arrangement is there, and done so well, but the story is the big deal and the story is one of grace and forgiveness. It is unforgettable really.
Jean Valjean represents a man who has experienced Christ’s redemption in the worst of circumstances. Forced to serve a sentence that was grossly unfair Valjean becomes a man of faith and grace, not a bitter and angry man determined to get revenge from his tormentor. He learns that you can do almost anything if you make love the rule of your life and learn to show mercy to those who hurt you. In the end Valjean wonderfully represents the “real” Christian, a person of living and active faith who truly loves.
Paul says, “Let love be your guide. Christ loved us and offered his life for us as a sacrifice that pleases God” (Ephesians 5:2). And the beloved apostle says, “Children, you show love for others by truly helping them, and not merely by talking about it (1 John 3:18). And he adds,”God is love, and anyone who doesn’t love others has never known him” (1 John 4:8). And, further still, “No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is truly in our hearts” (1 John 4:12). I could go on and on here but the point is quite simple–those who know God love and forgive, even their enemies. Jean Valjean demonstrates this as well as any character in nineteenth century literature and this film reveals that about as powerfully as anything I’ve seen from Hollywood in a long time.
Will most viewers understand this? Probably not. But the message is there and if we want to talk to people in our culture about the love of God, and what this radical love means to those who follow the Savior, then this film could be a great place to start the conversation. See it. Talk about it. Experience it, if nothing else.
Unless you detest musicals entirely you will like this film version of Victor Hugo’s story. I loved it. Hugh Jackman is brilliant as Jean Valjean. His portrayal of repentance and true faith is remarkable. I was mesmerized at the end. I freely admit that I wept. This is a brilliant and redemptive film that ought to be seen by Christians who want to appreciate what true faith and love truly looks like in a human being who has known great misery and loss.