In Les Mis, he who has been forgiven much, loves much

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 16, 2013

“To love another person is
 to see the face of God!”
Jean Valjean, Les Misérables

Few motion pictures have touched me as deeply as the 2012 version of Les Misérables currently in theatres. (Spoiler warning!)

Based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel about redemption in turbulent 19th century France, the Golden Globe award-winning, Oscar-nominated  musical directed by Tom Hooper is the story of Jean Valjean (played by Hugh Jackman), a man embittered by 19 years at hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving child.

Upon his release from prison and burdened with unbearable parole conditions, he robs a kindly bishop (Colm Wilkinson) of his silver and flees, only to be caught by the police and brought back to face the bishop.

Amazingly, the bishop tells the police he had actually given the silver to Valjean. In fact, he goes a step further, giving Valjean a pair of silver candlesticks he had left behind – to help him get started in his new life.

Then, speaking very personally to this man who had just treated him so shamefully, the bishop says: “Remember this, my brother, see in this some higher plan . . . [with] this precious silver . . . God has raised you out of darkness; I have saved your soul for God!”

This marks the turning point in Valjean’s life, as he realizes that he deserves to be “back beneath the lash, upon the rack; instead [the bishop] offers me my freedom.”

And here begins the rest of the story.

Back in 2009 I wrote a column on Bille August’s important 1998 cinematic interpretation of Les Misérables as a non-musical drama starring Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean. In that column I developed the theme of how even failed trust can be healed, focusing especially on the bishop’s act of forgiveness.

Hooper’s musical has caused me to move beyond the bishop’s initial action to how Jean Valjean lives out the meaning of such Love, albeit in the accusatory shadow of his former prison guard, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), obsessed with teaching Valjean the meaning of the Law.

Along the way, we are treated to some memorable vocals expressing the dreams and distress of the people Valjean encounters.

“I dreamed a dream,” laments the single mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway), badly jilted by lover and life. “But there are dreams that cannot be, and there are storms we cannot weather. I had a dream my life would be so much different from this hell I’m living, so different now from what it seemed. Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.”

About her lament I reflect on how we can all have the privilege of being fans to rekindle the fading embers of each other’s souls. Driven by his awareness of his own experience of mercy, Valjean becomes that fan for her at her hour of death by stepping forward to raise her young daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), victimized by scoundrel innkeepers who were supposed to be looking out for her wellbeing.

Cosette has a dream, too, a dream of “a castle on a cloud . . . where no one’s lost . . . where no one cries.” Valjean, moved by mercy, becomes that castle on a cloud for her.

Then, some years later, a fugitive now hiding from Inspector Javert in Paris, Valjean, with Cosette in his care, has a number of experiences that test to the limit his commitment to being a new man of mercy.

He encounters a band of student revolutionaries with their own dreams – dreams colourful like their flag of which they sing, “Red – a world about to dawn! Black – the night that ends at last!”

At the urging of his student friends, he has the chance to take revenge against his old nemesis Javert. But what does the spirit of forgiveness demand of him?

Again, in the heat of armed conflict, he has a chance to ignore the life-and-death needs of young Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a student revolutionary whom he perceives to be a rival for Cosette’s affections. Instead, he sings those memorable words: “God on high, hear my prayer; bring him home. In my need you have always been there. . . . Let me die, let him live.”

In all this, Valjean struggles to be free from the accusatory finger of a legalism that pursues him relentlessly in its attempts to reassert itself as his slave master and rob him of his freedom.

But the freedom he has found is eternal, grounded in the love that flows from his own experience of being forgiven by that bishop all those years earlier. So in his final words, he sings of the everlasting nature of that love, for “to love another person is to see the face of God!”

Les Misérables is playing locally at Cochrane Movie House through Jan. 24.


© 2013 Warren Harbeck

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