Friday, January 25, 2013

Beyond the Barricade

My wife and I finally got out to see Les Miserables last weekend. I left the theater with little to say other than "wow". Normally I wait for movies to come out on Netflix, but I am glad I was able to see this on the big screen.

I normally don't do movie reviews. One is the reason above- I seldom make it out for new releases. But another reason is that the movie-going experience is so subjective. What one person finds remarkable another thinks is just mundane. In fact, reading some of the reviews online at IMDB I was surprised just how many people nit picked this movie to death. Instead of adding my voice to the din and tackling every complaint and criticism, I'm going to offer my two cents plus some thoughts about how the Christian blogosphere missed the forest for the trees.

Nits and Picks:

I was introduced to the story of Jean Valjean by my sister, who brought home the Les Mis' soundtrack after seeing it on stage. I was instantly pulled into the story, drawn by the character arc of the protagonist. I know the songs well. In fact it was hard not to sing out loud throughout the movie (but that didn't stop me from mouthing the words). I've also seen it on stage three times with different interpretations, so I was very interested to see how certain sets would be translated on screen.

Many critics weren't impressed by the singing. Russell Crowe gets a majority of the scorn. His voice is softer and it did take time getting used to- when you're used to hearing someone's voice, you assume what their singing voice should sound like. So I was first uncomfortable with his voice, but it grew on me. The same was true for Marius, played by Eddie Redmayne. I don't really know him as an actor, so in his case I had trouble reconciling his face with his falsetto. Again, it took some getting used to. But since I've seen this more than once on stage, and have worn out the tape listening to the Broadway cast, I am used to hearing different voices for each of the characters. So this didn't bother me and wouldn't be worth me complaining about.

Another criticism I've seen is about the cinematography. Most songs, and even some of the action, is directed towards the audience. This makes sense as it is an adaptation of a stage play, but some found the extreme closeups unnerving. On the contrary, I loved it. I have horrible eyesight and I've never had pit seating, so when I've seen Les Mis' on stage the characters are just a blur, distinct only for their voices and hopefully their wardrobe. But besides helping my poor eyes, the focus on each character's face as they sang about their plight had the effect of pulling me into the movie. It was as if the characters were singing just to me. Because this made it so personal each struggle, each death, tore at the heart. Had I waited to watch this at home, I don't think it would have impacted me the way it did.

I could rant about other things, such as Eponine's story arc getting cut short (which some fans are really, really upset about) but none of those things take away from what I considered an awe-inspiring movie experience.

Awe-inspiring. Lofty words, so I better back them up.

(photo credit: The Guardian UK)

Missing the forest for the trees.

(SPOILERS AHEAD)

Most Christian bloggers have focused on the dichotomy between Jean Valjean and Javert. I don't want to belittle those posts, as most I've found are thoughtfully written and worth the read. (Short list: Timothy Darlymple at Patheos, Owen Strachan at Patheos, JR Forasteros at FaithVillage, Joe Rigney at Desiring God, and most recently Katelin Hansen at Red Letter Christians.) There are other contrasts as well- the haves and have-nots, the selfish and the selfless, destiny and circumstance, and so on. But it is another theme that I haven't seen talked about much which is the theme that caused me to fall in love with this story to begin with: redemption.

Obviously the main storyline of Jean Valjean is that of redemption, but we see it in other characters as well: Fantine being rescued by Valjean from the streets, Marius proving himself to his friends and then being saved, again by Valjean, from the blockade, Eponine proving her love by sacrificing herself, and even Javert has a chance at redemption but refuses it.

Each character's response to redemption is important. What do you do when you're given a second chance? I'm reminded of the ten lepers Jesus heals in Luke 17. Jesus heals all of them, but only one returns to give thanks. Or you could consider the parable of the unmerciful servant from Matthew 18. How do you respond when your debts are forgiven?

Legalism versus grace is a debate worth having, but not at the expense of the Gospel of redemption. The Son of God lived on this earth and was killed so that our debt to God can be wiped off the ledger. What do we do with our second (and third, and fourth...) chance?

Jean Valjean was given freedom, but he was rejected by the world. It made him bitter and spiteful. Eventually he was forgiven, by a priest no less (Monseigneur Myriel was played by Colm Wilkinson who was Valjean in the original Broadway cast), and his heart of stone was transformed into a heart of flesh. What did he do from here? He became a successful businessman and mayor, he saved many both from physical harm and economic hardship, he stood up for what was right and just, and he was moved by love to offer second chances to Cozette and Marius. You cry at the end of the movie just as you would at the wake of anyone else who made such an impact in your life. It is his life that is the inspiration and driving force behind the movie. It is his life that is worth imitating.

This theme of redemption is driven home in the finale. I never noticed this before, despite having heard it sung so many times. The movie closes with a reprisal of 'Can You Hear The People Sing?' but actually it isn't the same song. When watching on stage I couldn't tell, but on the big screen I was able to see the characters who died earlier in the story standing on the blockade (before I just assumed it was the full cast). Seeing characters who should be dead, fully alive (and joyful!), singing the Finale gives enough of a clue that this story isn't about legalism or grace. I get chills recalling this scene. Now check out the lyrics:

Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.
 
... 
 
They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the plough-share,
They will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward.
 
Will you join in our crusade?
 Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?

Beyond the barricade is a world we long to see. It is a new chance at life- eternal life. But to get there we need to climb to the light. If this isn't the Gospel, I don't know what is.

If you've seen this movie, I encourage you to talk about it with your friends, your coworkers, your neighbors. Talk about the theme. Ask them if there's a life beyond the mundane day-to-day that they long to see. Then share about the Gospel of redemption, Jean Valjean's second chance and the second chance Jesus offers each and every one of us. And offer to walk with them as they climb to the light.

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