Some of the puritanical naysaying is depressingly predictable (although it seems to be a minority view) and I suppose if you’re sniffy about the musical, you’ll probably find reasons to dislike the movie . . .
. . . but that aside, Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables (hereafter Les Mis because I’m too lazy to do the accent) is really great. Quick film-y review: superb performances by Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, an inspired decision to sing live are the good; the bad is the ropey singing from Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried and a stupid cameo from Saint Nicholas.
A quick thought or two about the film’s religiosity. Valjean’s conversion and redemption seemed much more prominent in the film than in the musical. The songs are the same but the setting places Christianity in the centre. Not only in the action’s of the Bishop of Digne — whom we also see welcoming Valjean to heaven — but also in Valjean’s soliloquy (What Have I Done?) which has him sing before an altar. It is obvious that this is the tale of a man’s redemption, bought by the “by the Passion and the Blood.”
Les Mis also offers the best cinematic depiction of the Good Death I have seen. At the end of Hugo’s novel, as Valjean breathes his last, Hugo writes: “The night was starless and very dark. Without doubt, in the gloom some mighty angel was standing, with outstretched wings, awaiting the soul.” Making Fantine that angel was already a good decision in the musical, but here, the return of Anne Hathaway, whose own Passion is so grimly rendered, was a beautiful touch. So too his return to “that same sociality” at the barricade after his death.
My sons receive several hours of religious instruction every week at school and at church but few lessons will be as effective as the conversation we had on our return to the car after the film. They both recognised the Bishop of Digne’s role as central to both Valjean’s redemption and Cosette’s salvation, which is why his return in that beatific vision at the end is so good. His single act of mercy saves souls and lives and makes Javert’s villainy all the more wicked. Given that many of us are also guilty of making Christianity into Javert’s religion of “duty, nothing more,” this is an arresting thought.
Valjean is clearly a pious man and Les Mis is no hymn to a secular charity, but what I hope Les Mis taught my boys is this: we can make our lives noble by doing what God would have us do, which is to love the less fortunate. Valjean’s path was not trod in prayer and devotion alone, although they clearly comforted and inspired him. It is, as usual, the parable of the sheep and goats. Nothing more. Nothing less.
I suggest cancelling all lessons and evangelism this month and simply get people to watch Les Mis. It is, whatever its few aesthetic flaws, the best film about Jesus I have seen.