It is common to think that justice does not include mercy. But when a person’s concept of right and wrong does not include the possibility of repentance and forgiveness, then the law becomes a tyrant and criminals become irredeemable. This is the state of mind in which Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) finds himself in Victor Hugo’s story Les Miserables. Having been born into a chaotic world of poverty, Javert found an ordered certainty as a policeman dividing people into categories of good and bad believing God will reward the one and punish the other. As an officer of the law, Javert sees his purpose as exacting cruel punishment on lawbreakers.
In this musical version of Hugo’s classic tale, director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) calls on the skills of Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer. Their haunting lyrics tell the story with powerful emotions. Although the screenplay was written by the experienced adapter William Nicholson (First Knight, Gladiator), the story is told primarily through musical lyrics performed by a gifted ensemble of actors as well as artistic visual scenes depicting the desperation of the French Revolution.
In many ways, Hugh Jackman is the perfect Jean Valjean. With a troubled strength that he brought to his X-Men role of Wolverine, Jackman’s Valjean is believable as he brings his Tony-award winning abilities to the role. A prisoner forced into slave labor for almost two decades for having stolen a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew, Valjean is filled with hatred until the kindness of a priest brings him into God’s care and transformation. Although he breaks his life-long parole, Valjean becomes a compassionate and upstanding businessman and community leader. But because of his parole violation, he has become the focus of Javert’s dedication to enforce the law, especially since he does not believe a person can change.
The Oscar-worthy ensemble cast includes the beautiful but tragically vulnerable Fantine played by Anne Hathaway, the sweet and trusting Cosette played as a child by Isabelle Allen and as an adult by Amanda Seyfried, the idealistic revolutionary Marius winsomely portrayed by Eddie Redmayne and the unrequited lover Eponine played by Samantha Barks. Although this redemptive film primarily takes place in the dark discontent of 19th century Paris, comic relief is well played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the innkeeper Thenardier and Madame Thenardier.
The core Christian principle of forgiveness is something with which even Christians struggle. Hugo’s novel presents a clear depiction of why mercy, compassion and forgiveness are the only solutions to the human condition. As such, this tale of sin and forgiveness, law and grace, hatred and love, mercy and justice provides us with images and language to understand what Jesus said long ago: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37) Javert did not accept this guidance or even understand how Valjean could live a new and transformed life. Having received God’s forgiveness and transforming love, Valjean extended that love to Javert in a way that Javert’s mind could not understand and his heart could not accept. But God’s love transformed Valjean just as it does all those who accept it. It is this authentic portrayal of God’s merciful love, forgiveness and transformation that makes this powerful tale true, inspiring and worthy of our highest recommendation.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. When the priest refuses to press charges, he demonstrates a clear example of mercy. It is this mercy that convinces Valjean that he has a soul and a responsibility to live a good, merciful and compassionate life as well. How have you experienced mercy and forgiveness? How have you extended it to others?
2. Hugo wrote the novel upon which this film is based while living in exile for his opposition to the regal behavior of Napoleon. In what ways do you see this story as a political statement against a brutal government and/or socio-economic injustice?
3. It is difficult to accept that when Valjean finally found love he then died. But it does seem that he came to full spiritual maturity and was ready to move into the heavenly world. What do you think prepares us for the life to come? Why do you answer as you do?
Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of the Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara. For more reviews: www.cinemainfocus.com.