You see, I’m not a big fan of musicals. Yes, I guess you could say, I’ll admit it, I’m a musical hater. But it could be I’m getting soft in my old age. When I heard that a film was being made of the Broadway hit Les Misérables I yawned. But my daughter sure didn’t; she was ecstatic. And the wife thinks musicals are great too. Being a fan of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel I figured I’d join them to see what this musical adaptation was like and what all the hubbub was about; reading the mostly positive reviews actually made seeing it thinkable, which for me is saying a lot. You can read as many reviews as can stand (Rotten Tomatoes gives is a 71% on 162—normal folks rated it at 86%, which I can imagine is quite high), so no need for one here, but I can give a regular musical hater guy’s impressions. And yes, lots of spoilers.
Briefly, the story is a powerful tale of oppression and redemption, with a backdrop of Catholic Christianity, without which such a story dare I say could not be made. The tale starts with Hugh Jackman, playing ex-prisoner Jean Valjean, being released from prison after 19 years for simply stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister. Understandable anger and bitterness consume him until he receives mercy and grace from a Catholic priest after being caught stealing some of the monastery’s silver. Especially stirring is his struggle (portrayed by Jackman in anguished fashion in front of a crucifix) against his current passion to hate, with the forgiveness he has been shown. He knows he must embrace that latter if his life is to mean anything.
A changed man, he flees from his parole to take up a new identity, but Javert (played by Russell Crowe, whose singing, while fine, was just not something I could get used to), a policeman turned detective continues to hunt him as the story unfolds. The contrast between Jevert, a legalist who knows nothing of the nuance of grace and mercy, but only judgment, and Valjean whose heart longs to help the helpless couldn’t be starker. Both are religious, but Javert never seemed to learn the true lessons of the gospel, which eventually leads to suicidal despair for the grace and mercy shown him by Valjean. This is an interesting commentary on the history of Christianity, its potential for judgmentalism and its fulfillment in the cross of Christ as the ultimate example of forgiveness, for mercy, for grace, unmerited favor in the face justice demanded.
The singing is always a distraction for me, but Anne Hathaway’s performance is amazing and gut wrenching. Her tragic life becomes a vehicle for Valjean’s salvation, as he raises her daughter upon her death. All the singing done live is much more effective than the typical musical’s lip synching. And there are lots of close ups, which can be distracting but effective as well. Then of course, there is all that singing. As I told my wife and daughter on the way out of the theater, I’d love to see the story with the same actors done without all that singing! They mocked me. But no wonder Les Misérables has been a 25 year hit with theater goers. The emotion of the story, while not at all subtle is powerful nonetheless.
On another score, the movie is a rebuke to both traditionalist conservatives who think there is nothing but rot in American popular culture and fundamentalist atheists who think religion contributes nothing positive to human kind. Both could not be more wrong in equal measure, even as they do get some things right.
Sure there is a lot of garbage in American pop culture, some trivial some positively harmful, but there is a lot of good that affirms the best in human nature, like this movie with lots of singing in it. And certainly those who claim to follow Christ have over a couple thousand years done some very nasty things and just some annoying things as well, but overall the Church in all its manifestations has been a huge force for the good in lives and cultures throughout history and throughout the world; a good example being the multitudes who have experienced the unconditional love and forgiveness of God in Christ as Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean did, and his Jevert for some reason could not.
So, if you’re a musical hater like me, go ahead and give Les Misérables a chance. You may even shed a few tears like I did (that’s just between you and me). But what I don’t get, and maybe you’ll be able to help me with it when you see it, is how all those dead people came back to life again at the end of the movie to sing the rousing finale. Oh yeah, I know how, it’s a musical!