I wasn't quite prepared for Les Misérables.
I'd never read Victor Hugo's book, never saw a production of the play. Sure, I knew the story was set in France sometime after the revolution but sometime before Francois Mitterrand. I knew the 2012 film was directed by Tom Hooper (The King's Speech). I knew it had some singing.
I wasn't ready for the level of spirituality found here.
Keep in mind, spirituality's not hard for me to find (or, at least, for me to think I find). I'm a guy who tries to pull spiritual meaning out of Vicky Cristina Barcelona and The Expendables 2, the guy who wrote a whole book about Christian themes and metaphors in a comic-book hero. But here's the thing: I'm not used to watching films that just sorta drop the big "G" word right in your lap without even blinking
Les Mis does so—and so explicitly that it feels as much like a Christian fable as a Broadway musical. While Hooper's directing is great and the singing is nice and Anne Hathaway should win Best Supporting Actress for her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" alone, I was most struck by the core story—the story of two souls in the hands of God.
Those two souls reside in (respectively) Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a parole-jumping criminal, and Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who vows to capture Valjean and bring him to justice.
Javert thinks he's doing God's work. "He knows his way in the dark," Javert says of his nemesis. "Mine is the way of the Lord/And those who follow the path of the righteous/Shall have their reward." To find God, Javert believes, you must follow the rules. Stray, as Valjean did, and "you fall in flame."
And Valjean might've done just that, the movie tells us. Embittered from years of unjust imprisonment, he had (as he sings) "come to hate this world/This world which had always hated me." He's a bad man—so bad that, when a kindly bishop takes him in, Valjean absconds with the guy's silver. When Valjean is captured, silver still in hand, he lies and claims the priest gave it to him.
Yeah, right. Most Christians—me included—would've let the law drag Valjean off for his lack of courtesy. "That's how you repay my kindness?!" I might've called after him, shaking my fist.
But the bishop tells the constables that he did give Valjean the silver—handing him a pair of candlesticks to take with him as well. "You must use this precious silver/To become an honest man," the bishop tells him. "God has raised you out of darkness: I have bought your soul for God."
And so Valjean is given a second chance he truly did not earn and does not deserve, just as we all have been given.
I guess Les Mis could be characterized as a showdown between religious legalism and God’s grace, and we all know who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy, here. Javert, in the end, can’t accept the true nature of God’s grace. Our God is a God of second chances, but the words “second chance” ain’t in Javert’s vocabulary.
But Valjean does some pretty incredible things with his second chance. The bishop exhorted Valjean to become an honest man, and so he does—saving the lives of a handful of people along the way.
It’s a beautiful story beautifully told (though it’s not exactly family friendly). And clearly we’re all supposed to root for and sympathize with the heroic Jean Valjean. But frankly, I don’t think I often measure up to the guy. Often, I make poor use of the second chances I’ve been given to make a difference in the world. And I’m sure that there are times when I’m far more like Javert than I’d care to admit. Get me talking about people cutting in line, and I’m liable to launch into a Les Mis-like soliloquy.
Faith, in one form or another, has been a big part of this year’s Oscar hopefuls—from politicians in Lincoln enlisting the Heavenly Father for their own cause to The Life of Pi’s strange, inspiring spiritual ruminations. But Les Mis may be the closest we’ll get to an overtly “Christian” movie at the Academy Awards this year.