Film Review — Les Miserables

I'll be the first to admit that musicals aren't really my thing. That being said, as a married man, I've seen more than a few, and I can usually tolerate most of them—and even enjoy one now and again. So when the Les Miserables hit the big screen on Christmas Day, I knew I'd likely end up seeing it at some point or another. And considering all the rave reviews it was getting, I figured I'd see what all the hype was about.

Disclaimers: If the term "musical" is one that brings to mind images of The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins or anything by the Walt Disney Company, you might want to think twice before taking your children to go see it. There's a fair amount of adult content (bloody violence, frightening scenes, prostitution and sexuality), and for those reasons, I don't recommend it as a movie for the young or easily offended.

As an added disclaimer: if you don't like musicals, you will not like this movie. It's not just a movie with a few songs—nearly the entire film (all 160 minutes of it) is sung by the actors onscreen. That's right—sing-talking. There's next to no spoken dialogue in the film at all. Musical-haters be warned.

Technical notes: If Les Miserables were a famous painting, it would be less of a Rembrandt and more of a Jackson Pollock—if it's not your thing, you really, really won't like it.

To those who typically aren't huge fans of the musical genre, Les Miserables may feel like the movie version of a collection of pretty colours hurled indiscriminately at an unsuspecting canvas.

But that's not to say there aren't good things there—Anne Hathaway's performance of "Dreamed a Dream" is simply magnificent. The art direction is vibrant, featuring costumes and sets that should earn it some serious consideration come awards season. And as difficult as it is to remark on the acting (given that the characters all deliver their lines in a song voice), all of the performers do well in the roles assigned to them, and no one can be faulted for any particular shortcoming.

But with all that in mind, Les Miserables is a movie that strikes me as being high on its own concept—it seems to get caught up in its own hype and neglects some basic details that go along with proper filmmaking. The cinematography is tilted, wobbly, shaky and choppy at times and there's a glaring lack of character development in some of its key figures, something that seems to get lost in all of the film's sing-talking glory. Fans of the book or musical production will know the characters well—those who don't will have unanswered questions.

For instance, why is Officer Javert so intent on arresting Jean Valjean, a man who has so clearly tried to make an honest life for himself after a failed life of crime? Anyone willing to ask this basic question will wonder why Javert doesn't just get a life and catch some real criminals.

Deeper meanings and greater gleanings: All musical gripes aside, the story of reformed convict Jean Valjean is a compelling one and has much to say about the nature of redemption and second chances. As I watched the opening moments of the film, I found myself struck by the kindness shown by the Bishop towards Valjean, who is caught by police after stealing the church's silverware.

In response, Valjean vows to begin a new life for himself after feeling the grace, love and kindness from a man who has every right to demand justice from the heavy hand of the law. Such a display speaks volumes about the undeserved grace we've received from a God who would be perfectly justified to punish us for our sinful nature. Instead, we're shown grace. It's powerful stuff.

Almost equally fascinating is the character of Javert, Valjean's continual foil throughout Les Miserables. At a later point in the film, Javert finds himself with the tables turned, and his life at the mercy of the same Jean Valjean who he's sought to put behind bars for years. But instead, Valjean shows him mercy.

Javert's response to grace is far less positive. In one of the film's closing moments, Javert finds himself at odds with his inner being; he's unable to bring Valjean to justice, something he believes to be his duty as a police officer. How does he kill the man to whom he owes his life?

These two examples serve as flipsides to how humanity has responded to the grace of God we've been given freely. Some like Valjean will pay it forward and respond with kindness to those around them. Others find such a concept troubling, like Javert who is ultimately unable to reconcile the conflict between his duty as a policeman and the debt he owes to Valjean.

Both examples serve to highlight the profound nature of grace and how it has the ability to powerfully affect how we as humans view the world around us, though we may not always come to the same conclusions.

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About the author

Rob Horsley is the former Managing Editor of ChristianWeek.