Signs of Redemption
Catholic themes in the new movie Les Misérables
By Robyn Lee
If you are a fan of the popular Broadway musical Les Misérables, than you will love the motion-picture adaption of Victor Hugo’s novel which hits screens on Christmas Day. I had the opportunity to see an early preview of the film and talk with the director and several of the actors.
The tale follows the life of ex-prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) who is released from prison after 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. Even though he is on parole, Valjean is shunned by everyone because of his ex-convict status. He struggles to find lodging, food and work. It isn’t until the Bishop of Myriel of Digne (played by Colm Wilkinson, who was the original Jean Valjean in London and on Broadway) shows him mercy by offering him shelter and a warm meal.
After dining with the Bishop, Valjean decides to steal the bishop’s silver in the middle of the night. Valjean is soon caught and returned to face the bishop. The police accuse Valjean of theft, but the bishop insists he gave the silver to Valjean as a gift and even adds: “but my friend you left so early, surely something slipped your mind. You forgot I gave these also. Would you leave the best behind?” The bishop hands Valjean precious silver candlesticks and saves him from returning to prison — these candlesticks are a symbol of his redemption and show up throughout the entire film.
The bishop then advises Valjean, “but remember this my brother. See in this some higher plan, you must use this precious silver to become an honest man. By the witness of the martyrs. By the passion and the blood. God has raised you out of darkness. I have bought your soul for God.”
Valjean is left with his thoughts and asks, “why did I allow that man to touch my soul and teach me love? ... My life he claims for God above. Can such things be?” He is conflicted between the anger he feels from being in prison and the kindness he received from the Bishop. Ultimately Valjean decides to start a new life by leaving his identity of Jean Valjean behind.
Talking about the character Jean Valjean, Hugh Jackman says, “I see him as a real hero. Quiet and humble … Jean Valjean comes from a place of the greatest hardship that I could never imagine and manages to transform himself from the inside … Victor Hugo uses the word transfiguration, it is even more than a transformation because he becomes more Godlike, it is a spiritual change, it is something that happens from within. To me it is the most beautiful journey ever written.”
The song “What Have I Done” is shot very close on the face of Hugh Jackman. I’ve seen the play three times on Broadway and I never thought of this song as a conversation with God. With the angle so close and seeing the agony on the actor’s face, I recognized this song for what it is: a deep prayer to God. Director Tom Hooper explained why he shot in close-up for many scenes: “Having the camera do a meditation on the human face was, by far, the best way to bring out the meaning and the emotions of the songs.”
Another important way of capturing the emotion in the moment, is the unique element of the actors singing live. Tom Hooper explained, “What excited me was the idea of doing it live. I don’t think I would have done it if it turned out not to be possible to direct the film live, because no matter how good the synchronization is of actors singing to playback, an audience can tell that there’s something unreal about it. It doesn’t feel connected to what is occurring on the screen.”
This is especially captured in the song, “Who Am I” when we see the turmoil of Jean Valjean when he discovers that the police arrested a man, thought to be him. Valjean struggles with the idea of sending an innocent man to prison. In this scene, while he questions whether he will be condemned for staying silent, we see two signs of his redemption — the crucifix and the silver candlesticks. He asks: “Must I lie? How can I ever face my fellow man? How can I ever face myself again? My soul belongs to God, I know I made that bargain long ago. He gave me hope when hope was gone. He gave me strength to journey on.”
There are many Catholic themes throughout the entire film, including the score. Eddie Redmayne, who plays Marius, talks about the beauty of the lyrics, “relating to Claude-Michel’s (Schönberg) score — that tune that Colm Wilkinson, as the bishop, sings to Hugh at that moment in which God is placed into Jean Valjean’s life for the first time — how that recapitulates throughout the piece. And the bit when I saw the film that absolutely stunned me was when Hugh and Isabelle (Allen) are running away from Javert (Russell Crowe) and they come into the convent and you suddenly hear these nuns singing that piece — and it’s suddenly a choral piece. This idea that Tom (Hooper) has woven in religious imagery throughout the piece, but suddenly to hear this music in an ecclesiastic setting that’s something transcendental that hit me in that moment.”
Les Misérables is a story of right and wrong, the cross and redemption, forgiveness and God’s mercy. The culmination of this theme reveals itself in the final scenes when an old Jean Valjean again lifts up his prayer to God, “God on high, Hear my prayer, Take me now to thy care. Where you are, let me be. Take me now. Take me there. Bring me home.”
This magnificent film is a beautiful portrayal of God’s mercy and love. We are left singing that final line “to love another person is to see the face of God."
I can’t wait to see it again. Do you plan to see it? Once you do, I would love to hear your comments. (Click "add a comment" at the top of the page).
Les Misérables is rated PG-13: for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.