But Esau said, ‘I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.’ Jacob said, ‘No, please; if I find favour with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favour.
Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word that you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because* the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.. Whoever says, ‘I am in the light’, while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister* lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling.
I John 2:7-10
The film which many of us have been waiting for is finally here! But before dealing with it, let me set the stage by referring to other film versions of what I think is as great a novel as War and Peace. In Western culture the two great stories of law and grace are that of Saul-Paul in the New Testament and Inspector Javert-Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s masterful novel, so it is no wonder that so many filmmakers since 1909 have adapted Victor Hugo’s novel, with varying degrees of artistry.
Although my favorite was the 1935 with Frederick March and Charles Laughton, a close second is that of Jean-Paul Le Chanois in 1958, starring the veteran French actors Jean Gabin and Bernard Blier as Valjean and Javert. At 3 ½ hours it includes far more of the middle section of the novel than most, nor did it condense the pivotal scene of the Bishop and the candlesticks, my main criticism of the new musical version. The 1952 release with Michael Rennie and Robert Newton as Valjean and Javert is watchable, but leaves out entirely the Thenardiers—can you imagine this? In the 1998 remake Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush as fugitive and policeman are very good in their roles, but even though the 2 hours and 14 minutes make it longer than the average film, a lover of the novel will long for more.
Tom Hooper’s take on the musical does too, even though it’s a few minutes longer. I think the best preparation, short of working your way through the massive novel, is to see several of the above versions, each of which includes plot details omitted from the others. What this newest release does is to bring music from a background or supporting role right into the heart of the story, thus adding an emotional intensity not possible in the straight dramas. The spiritual agony and questioning of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is beautifully express in the song “What Have I Done?” The repentant thief’s feelings and thoughts expressed here make up for the too brief a depiction of the Bishop’s white lies to the police and his giving the candlesticks to the dumb-struck man. The scene is in a chapel where Valjean addresses his prayer to “Sweet Jesus,” as he reflects upon the past injustice committed against him and the remarkable man who “treated me like no other/He gave me trust/He called me brother.” Changed by a man of grace, Valjean vows to live up to the Bishop’s love and trust in him as he teas up his yellow passport and sets forth to build a new life, one of service to humanity, and thus to God.
Becoming the Mayor of the town he settles in Valjean (Russell Crowe) passes on the love and grace he received from the old Bishop. But his idyll is threatened when Javert, appearing as the new chief of police, begins to suspect that his superior might be the former convict who never showed up at his proscribed destination years ago. The moment of crisis arises when it is reported that Jean Valjean has been caught and is being tried. In the moving song “Who Am I?” Valjean struggles with the question of should he go to the trial in order to “save his hide?” He rationalizes, as most of us would, that he has been doing so much good here, and that his work would be undone if he were to leave. But he now has a conscience formed by Christ through the Bishop: “If I speak, I am condemned./If I stay silent, I am damned!” The scene shifts abruptly while Valjean is still singing. This time in open court he asks and declares, “Who am I? Who am I?/ I am Jean Valjean!”
Much later after he and Cossette (Amanda Seyfried) have fled to Paris and Valjean has accepted the fact that Marius (Eddie Redmayne) is the man for his beloved “daughter,” another of his prayers, using the same music of an earlier prayer, expresses his great love. In “Bring Him Home” he pleads with God for the life of Marius, facing deadly peril on the barricades that the French army is about to attack. That Jean Valjean has been completely transformed through the unconditional love of the Bishop cannot be denied by anyone, except for—
Before moving on to Inspector Javert, at least a brief mention of the Thenardiers should be included. As played by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, they become almost likeable jokers, like a number of characters in Hollywood comedies whom we root for, even though they con their unsuspecting victims. Indeed, Thenardier’s “Master of the House” is a show stopper of a song, so we should not forget that Victor Hugo saw them as despicable leeches out to victimize anyone they come across. Were he writing today, Hugo might portray them as Wall Street financiers or fawning politicians with their hands in every pocket. Loathable, not loveable is the way we should regard them.
Inspector Javert, revealing at one point to Valjean, that he was born in prison but rose above his past to become an uncompromising upholder of the law. As he sings with all of the confidence of the Pharisees (and of Saul of Tarsus), “Mine is the way of the Lord/And those who follow the path of the righteous/Shall have their reward.” But what of those who stray from “the path of the righteous”? “And if they fall/As Lucifer fell/The flame/The sword!” The good Inspector thus sees himself as the one wielding that sword in the pursuit of his quarry. Indeed, in the earlier scene in which Valjean stands by the death bed of Fantine pleading to be allowed to go and rescue her daughter, Javert draws his sword as he walks toward Valjean, the latter defending himself with a staff and a chair before fleeing.
Javert, like other law-obsessed men, is rigid, even brittle. When Jean Valjean allows him to escape instead of executing him as a spy at the barricades, he cannot fathom the man he has labeled as unchangeable. This behavior just does not compute in his inflexible mind. And yet he does have a heart buried beneath the atrophied layers of years of obsession, in a gesture that I do not recall is in the novel, and definitely not in the film versions, the Inspector reveals that there is still a bit of humanity deep within him. After the troops attack and slaughter the men and boys at the barricade, their bodies are laid out in a row. Looking at them as he walks by, Javert stops, takes off his medal, and lays it on the breast of the young boy Gayroche (Daniel Huttlestone) out of respect.
In the sewer, when Valjean refuses his order to stop, keeping on instead carrying the prostrate form of the wounded Marius, Javert sings, “Who is this man?/What sort of devil is he?/To have me caught in a trap/And choose to let me go free?” Ruminating how his enemy could have easily killed him when the rebels had captured him, he decides, “Damned if I’ll live in the debt of a thief!” Back and forth he argues within himself, he who had never doubted before, now filled with them so much that the foundations of his world are being undermined. “The world I have known is lost in shadow./Is he from heaven or from hell?” On the road to Damascus the law-obsessed Saul met the Man he was persecuting, and was changed forever. Jean Valjean (who earlier had sung about his “Calvary”) is the “the Christ” for Javert, but the Inspector chooses (or is unable) not to change, “I’ll escape now from the world/From the world of Jean Valjean,” ending his life by jumping into the river below him.
There is more, much more that could be said about the spirituality of this version, including the uplifting climax in which we see again the saintly Bishop who made such a difference in not just Jean Valjean’s life, but in those of all with whom he came into contact. It was a neat touch to transer the words of Esau to his brother when the two are reconciled to the lips of Jean Valjean in the finale song which he sings in accompaniment with Fantine and Eponine, “Take my love/For love is everlasting/And remember/The truth that once was spoken:/To love another person is to see the face of God.” The rousing repetition of the chorus “Do You Hear the People Sing” even puts a positive spin on the death of the freedom fighters at the barricade, suggesting that eventually the struggle of people for justice and freedom will eventually triumph. There is no doubt that this belongs at or near the top of this year’s best films!
This review was originally posted on www.visualparables.net in the Jan/Feb issue of Visual Parables. In its journal form it contains over a dozen questions for discussion. The journal is available by subscription, as per instructions on the site.