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Grace Notes: Echoes of the gospel in Les Miserables

A group of Christ Church Central members viewed, reviewed and discussed the recent film version of Les Miserables. These were our findings:

lesmisLes Miserables has been one of the most successful West End musicals of recent years, both in terms of box office takings and critical acclaim. Tom Hooper’s film adaptation therefore has a lot to live up to – which, on the whole, it does. The film is a powerful, emotionally-charged and sometimes graphic account of dreams dreamed, dreams shattered and dreams reborn; of the often-conflicting human desires for justice and forgiveness; of faith, hope and love. It isn’t perfect – our consensus was that it merited four out of five stars, its chief flaws being the occasionally slow pace of the narrative and consequently the film’s length – but it is very good.

The filmmakers have taken full advantage of the opportunities afforded by a film over against a stage show, with frequent character close-ups designed to add emotional intensity – Anne Hathaway’s heart-rending performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” being the prime example. Indeed, the music is one of the film’s strengths throughout – well-known (and lesser-known) songs are well sung by well-known (and lesser-known!) performers. As one of our group commented, “If the words were spoken, no one would go and see it.”

The music, therefore, goes some way towards explaining the film’s popularity. There are other features, however, that are every bit as significant. The basic plotline – of a man (Jean Valjean, played by Hugh Jackman) who has experienced both gross injustice and lavish forgiveness, seeking to evade the clutches of his compassionless enemy (Javert, played by Russell Crowe) while at the same time forge a better life for himself and his fellow sufferers – is compelling. Valjean is unquestionably the hero of the piece, a man humbled into virtue by an act of kindness in the film’s first act. We root for him as victim, as underdog, and as anti-establishment rebel.

The story contains elements of personal triumph and tragedy played out against a backdrop of social upheaval and revolutionary fervour. Much has been made of the Christian elements of the film, particularly the contrast between Valjean as the recipient and then champion of grace, and Javert, relentless servant and even embodiment of the law. In his inflexibility and ultimately in his demise, we see that law without grace leaves no hope for anyone, not even those who wield the law.

The Christian heart of the film lies in its portrayal of the human need for forgiveness. Valjean is a hero to whom we can relate precisely because he isn’t perfect – he, whether out of desperation or simply an inability to resist temptation – has done things wrong, but when he is forgiven he is set on a path towards a life of righteousness and, at his death, a welcome into heaven. This is a profound echo of the Christian gospel – that we are all guilty before God and our only hope for life and for eternity is in the forgiveness he offers us through Jesus Christ.

It is, however, only an echo of the gospel. There are subtle but significant features of the Les Miserables story of salvation that don’t fit as well with the Bible’s true story. For one, Valjean never seems to have any assurance that God will accept him and his response to grace is a constant striving to prove himself worthy of it. This – unsurprisingly given the story’s roots in Victor Hugo’s 19th century French novel – is more like the Roman Catholic understanding of salvation. In Les Miserables, entry into paradise is merited either by good works or by unimaginable suffering. One imagines therefore that Hugo’s heaven is populated by the virtuous and the victims, rather than necessarily the forgiven – although the earthly utopia depicted at the film’s climax seems more to be about having good people in a good social system.

Of course, Les Miserables is just a story and, as such, can only ever echo the gospel – but in doing so it can point us to the true story. And therein, perhaps, lies its value for the Christian viewer – to provoke thought and reflection on the grace of the God who became one of us, substituted himself for us – to fully and finally save us. As Valjean sings of the gracious bishop, “He called me brother.” That is an incredible truth and – as are many of the film’s lines and themes – a great conversation-starter.