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Les Miserables Review

December 28, 2012

Les Mis

My initial thoughts about Les Miserables deal with the singing, and the message.

Tom Hooper’s bold move to use the actors’ and actresses’ unaltered voices did bring out a more real, human story but in this reality not everyone sings like the musical stars. It’s unfortunate, since singing was what distinguished this movie from previous film versions of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s musical adaption of Victor Hugo’s great novel. The real story does resonate, enough to bring some to tears — but Christians will be disappointed to know that Victor Hugo’s tale of grace is not the true Christian message.

Although it goes against sentimentality to so easily dismiss some of the actors’ hard work, the same sentiments demands justice for any musical performer who has given themselves up on stage night after night — no water breaks or close-up microphones to amplify the sound — and yet who will never get the recognition of a Russel Crowe or a Hugh Jackman. Hooper made the choice to avoid an actor with a better voice so that the celebrity names could grace the movie cover. And it’s to the audience’s shame that fewer of us might have gone to see it on opening night without those names, even at the expense of someone who can sing Valjean’s Who Am I.

While there were musical disappointments, they were sometimes laid to rest. For example, everyone laughed whenever the hilarious Sacha Baron-Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter appeared as the Thenardiers. And of course, the one person who could not have been better was Anne Hathaway, whose gut-wrenching and remarkably long performance of I Dreamed a Dream made the whole movie worth seeing.

I wasn’t surprised to hear several people react to the story saying things like “what a true story of grace and forgiveness” or “I really appreciated the redemptive, Christian themes.” Certainly grace, forgiveness and redemption are at the heart of Les Miserables. But they are not exactly a true Christian understanding of those themes. Victor Hugo’s story is one of grace mediated by man (the priest says “I save your soul for God”). The social mercy that passed from the priest to Valjean to others had little to do with an experience of God’s grace. The cinematography illustrated this by having Valjean face the camera — and the audience — during his conflicted scene in the Church where he decides whether to pursue revenge against Javert or become an honest man.

Victor Hugo’s own beliefs changed over the course of his life. During the 17 years between 1830 and 1847 that he wrote Les Miserables, he had not yet become so anti-Catholic and anti-clerical, but towards the end of his life he would best be characterized as an agnostic rationalist, or a deist at best.

Noticeably absent in the redemptive themes in Les Mis is Jesus, the mediator of grace between sinful man and holy God. God is distant, and grace is dispensed from the priest to Valjean, who then dispenses it at his own will to Fauntine, Cosette and Marius. For Hugo, salvation is not union with God, but a Romantic notion of love, solidarity, and political liberty.

I hope you see Les Mis — it is a great performance and a heart-rending story. But for Christians I hope that a) we have a higher standard for vocal performance and b) we keep in mind the differences between French Romantic deism and Christian notions of salvation.

Update: After much discussion, I have come to the conclusion that my reactions above are based upon misplaced expectations. I was looking for good music where I should have been looking for good acting (which was absolutely there). Having adjusted these expectations, I am more comfortable with the film, though still disappointed overall.

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