A hardened ex-convict has just robbed a bishop — the only person who had been kind to him. He’s promptly caught and dragged back to the scene of the crime to face his punishment.
Instead, he receives undreamed-of mercy.
This shattering, transformative act is at the heart of “Les Misérables,” the musical film that opened Christmas Day. The record-breaking movie is simultaneously gritty and filled with grace. Its heroes are the outcast, the neglected, the unseen—from the broken thief whose soul is redeemed, to the abandoned child he goes on to save.
Based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel and the stage musical that it inspired, this version of “Les Misérables” has been trying to make it to movie theaters for more than 20 years. The story carries us through several decades in the life of reformed thief Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man who possesses, in Hugo’s words, both “the aspirations of a saint” and “the formidable talents of a criminal.”
Tumultuous events, including the student revolution of 1832, swirl around Valjean, adding scope and drama to the story. We meet desperate prostitutes, idealistic fighters, neglected street urchins, and heroes and villains of all kinds. But the greatest struggles of all take place in the soul of the ex-convict, as he strives to hide from the ruthless Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), raise his adopted daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), and most of all, live selflessly and faithfully before God. The pursuit of holiness has seldom been portrayed more compellingly.
The task of making this movie was a daunting one: to take a sweeping musical melodrama, beloved around the world, and translate it into the medium of film. Director Tom Hooper, best known for his Oscar-winning 2010 film “The King’s Speech,” came up with a radical strategy: choosing intimacy over spectacle.
Though the story retains its epic scale, Hooper makes extensive use of close-ups, training his camera relentlessly on each character in turn as they suffer, fail, and triumph. In addition, he decided to have the actors sing their songs live on the set, instead of pre-recording their songs as is usually done in film musicals, to add a rawness and immediacy to the performances. His tight focus on the devastated Fantine (Anne Hathaway) as she sings “I Dreamed a Dream,” a song of lost love and destroyed hope, leaves audiences stunned and shaken.
Hooper explained this approach in an interview:
I thought a lot about how to shoot the songs, and I felt that the physical environment of the actor is not important to the song. . . . I thought the camera should be a meditation on the human face as the best way of bringing out the emotion and meaning of the song. I felt like there were two languages of epic — the obvious physical landscape of epics, but there was also the kind of epic of the human face and the epic of the human heart.
This is the show that so many of us grew up loving, in a whole new light.
Hooper’s vision and technique have, in fact, attracted their share of controversy, but to my mind, they fit the story perfectly. Before our eyes, he magnifies each throwaway character, forcing us to see through the dirt and squalor and recognize an individual stamped with the image of God.
This is all the more true as the film is saturated with religious themes and imagery: From the time Valjean leaves prison at the very beginning, for example, there almost always seems to be a cross somewhere near him. When he feels forced to confess his long-hidden past to his daughter’s fiancé, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), believing it to be the only honorable course, Hooper uses one of his trademark off-center camera angles, catching a crucifix that hangs on the wall behind Valjean. The journey of Valjean’s soul toward God—and the way that God’s love both liberates him and presses him to make ever-costlier sacrifices—is visibly reflected through these external symbols.
“Les Misérables” earns its PG-13 rating for some bawdy moments and bad language, but don’t be distracted by what’s on the surface. This remarkable director and cast invite us to go deeper, to see the grace that reaches in and transforms even the most degraded, most downtrodden individuals—to recognize, in the lives of “the least of these,” the love of God.
For Further Reading:
Rebecca Cusey, “Look Down, Look Down!: An Interview with Justice Fellowship’s Pat Nolan on the Released Prisoners Walking in Jean Valjean’s Footsteps,” Tinsel, Patheos, December 20, 2012.
Michael Gerson, “Crying at the movies,” “Washington Post,” January 7, 2013.
Rachel McMillan, “Film Review: ‘Les Misérables,’” A Fair Substitute for Heaven, December 27, 2012.
Image copyright Universal. Victor Hugo quotes taken from the Norman Denny translation.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.