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Less Miserable?

I would've been happier if Vue had sorted out their sound levels. The insipid, underwhelming aural impression aggravated me so much that, 45 minutes in, I actually ventured out to the corridor to consult a man with a walkie-talkie who looked like he might be in a position to do something about something. He told me the flat sound was an intentional part of the way it was filmed -- all of it coming from the front so that you would feel more like you were in a theatre. I have been unable to verify this claim (though I haven't tried all that hard) but I do hope he was mistaken because the actual effect was of being in my living room watching telly, and I'm pretty sure that's not what Tom Hooper was going for. Anyway, the man with the walkie-talkie assured me he'd get them to 'turn it up a bit', and, eager for my excursion from my seat not to have been a wasted effort, I managed to convince myself that it was a bit better after that. Still, I wanted to be immersed, and swept away, and I wasn't.

Mind you, there were moments when I would've thanked them to turn it down a bit; I'd have thanked the camera man to zoom out on occasion, too. I seem to be the only one who thinks this, but...Hugh Jackman -- who I really am generally genuinely a huge fan of (not least for his roles in X-Men 2 and The Prestige), and whom I expected to be amazing in this because of his background in musical theatre -- was, in my opinion (in which I remain unshakeable no matter what the critics and the experts and the Oscar-people and the raving public say), awful as Jean Valjean. Unwatchably so, I thought, in places. Poor man sounded like a braying donkey with a headcold. And the strain on his face when reaching for the high notes and the emotional climaxes...not moments for close-ups. [1] Everyone loves to hate on poor old Russell Crowe -- and true, he is not really cut out for musical theatre, but, well, he was fine. He hit the notes well enough. He didn't embarrass himself. His not-particularly-great public image served him well in the role of the villain Javert. I couldn't help but feel that pre-existing public sentiment too easily swayed audiences to applaud Jackman and deride Crowe -- pretty undeservedly on both accounts on this occasion.

For all my superciliousness I did find a substantial amount to enjoy and appreciate in the film and I'm glad I went to see it. The songs themselves are pretty stirring (although, that rather added to my frustration at the low volume), and some of the performances were powerful -- Eddie Redmayne as Marius stole the show with 'Empty Chairs at Empty Tables', Samantha Barks as Éponine so obviously knew what she was doing that I was not surprised to find out later that she was one of the few who had been cast from the world of musicals (well, musicals-slash-reality television...), and who could fail to be amused by the sight and sound of Sacha Baron Cohen as the scoundrel innkeeper singing (what are the chances!) about the fine fare served in his establishment: "Food beyond compare, food beyond belief...Mix it in a mincer and pretend it's beef. Kidney of a horse, liver of a cat...Filling up the sausages with this and that".

And then of course there were the bucket-loads of Christian allegory. More than I had anticipated, in fact. 'Everybody' knows the bit with the bishop at the start. It's an "alluded-to-in-one-in-every-five-sermons" kinda moment. Valjean is embittered, impoverished and desperate, having recently been released from 19 years' imprisonment (five for stealing bread for his sister and her starving family and fourteen for trying to escape). He is offered shelter by the kindly Bishop Myriel -- but steals his silverware and runs off in the night. He falls into the hands of the police, though, who take him back to the bishop's house to confront him with his which point... (in Hugo's original (translated) words) [2]:
"Ah! here you are!" he exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. "I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?" Jean Valjean opened his eyes wide, and stared at the venerable Bishop with an expression which no human tongue can render any account of. "Monseigneur," said the brigadier of gendarmes, "so what this man said is true, then? We came across him. He was walking like a man who is running away. We stopped him to look into the matter. He had this silver—" "And he told you," interposed the Bishop with a smile, "that it had been given to him by a kind old fellow of a priest with whom he had passed the night? I see how the matter stands. And you have brought him back here? It is a mistake." "In that case," replied the brigadier, "we can let him go?" "Certainly," replied the Bishop. The gendarmes released Jean Valjean, who recoiled. "Is it true that I am to be released?" he said, in an almost inarticulate voice, and as though he were talking in his sleep. "Yes, thou art released; dost thou not understand?" said one of the gendarmes. "My friend," resumed the Bishop, "before you go, here are your candlesticks. Take them." He stepped to the chimney-piece, took the two silver candlesticks, and brought them to Jean Valjean. The two women looked on without uttering a word, without a gesture, without a look which could disconcert the Bishop. Jean Valjean was trembling in every limb. He took the two candlesticks mechanically, and with a bewildered air.  "Now," said the Bishop, "go in peace. By the way, when you return, my friend, it is not necessary to pass through the garden. You can always enter and depart through the street door. It is never fastened with anything but a latch, either by day or by night." Then, turning to the gendarmes:—"You may retire, gentlemen." The gendarmes retired. Jean Valjean was like a man on the point of fainting. The Bishop drew near to him, and said in a low voice:— "Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man." (Victor Hugo, Les Misérables)
The bishop's act of forgiveness and generosity is just the sort of radical, cycle-breaking, self-sacrificing behaviour that Jesus talks about in the Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Matthew 5:42-48)
The incident stops Valjean in his metaphorical tracks and inspires him (more than that, equips him) to change his life. He becomes wealthy and successful -- and uses his position to help as many people as he can, constantly displaying the same kindness and mercy that first reached out to him in the person of the bishop. Me and Mr. W were talking about it afterwards and decided that one way to understand the role of the bishop in the plot was as an allegory for God, who accepts us and loves us as we are and, in the very act of doing so, provides us with the resources to be transformed. The more aware we are of our own brokenness and need, the more able to receive the grace that He holds out in invitation, and the more inclined to be overwhelmed by gratitude and wonder to the point of free-flowing (not legalistic) worship (by which I mean 'God-honouring living' not 'singing songs on a Sunday'). I was reminded of the story that Jesus tells to a Pharisee who is sitting in disapproving judgment on the company that Jesus receives:
One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” 
“A certain money-lender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning towards the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:36-50)
It is mind-blowing to consider that Jesus -- according to the Bible, the only guiltless man in history (e.g. Hebrews 4:15, 1 Peter 2:22, 1 John 3:5) -- should be so completely unsqueamishly accepting of, and so ready to engage physically and emotionally with, a woman who was an utter shame to herself and society in the eyes of the world and even by her own assessment. It is the less-than-perfect bystanders -- Simon the Pharisee and his other guests -- who cannot abide her presence or her extravagant, shocking, socially unacceptable act of worship. Perhaps the sight of her reminds Simon of his own sin. Perhaps the act of judging her somehow reassures him of his own superior moral state. Jesus, by contrast, has no sin to avoid remembering, no pride to feed, no insecurity to pander to -- no personal need that would be met by looking in judgment on the women at his feet.

It's not that Jesus doesn't care about her sin: he goes right to the root of the problem and forgives her! (Much to the bewilderment of the onlookers -- "Who can forgive sins but God alone?", as the scribes ask in Mark 2:7). It is hard to imagine her coming away from this encounter -- such politically incorrect grace, love and acceptance, such gentleness and wisdom, such audacious self-belief and yet such humility -- and going back to the same sinful life she was leading before. It is hard to imagine her not being radically transformed -- that same grateful worship she poured out at Jesus' feet flooding her life with a whole new way of being. Most likely, she faced continued hardship and challenge in that new life -- people are slow to forgive and forget, and she may well have been met daily with the same coldness and disgust she encountered in Simon and the onlookers. Transformation may even have meant giving up her means of supporting herself, if she was (as many guess her to have been) working as a prostitute. But if that direct experience of meeting Jesus meant what the Bible as a whole (and my own experience) leads me to understand, then I am pretty confident that the grace and power and presence of God with her would have extended past the moment and the circumstance to sustain, comfort, and transform her whatever her future held in store.

[Back to Les Mis; spoiler alert...]

In the film, following the transformational encounter with the bishop, Valjean becomes himself the embodiment of Mercy -- all manner of rescuing of fallen women, adopting of orphaned children, carrying of dying men through sewers (not my favourite scene) going on all over the place. By contrast, Javert -- the policeman who released Valjean on parole -- becomes, in a sense, the embodiment of Judgment. When Valjean breaks his parole in order to pursue his otherwise honest and remarkably noble life, Javert, utterly convicted of the God-ordained rightness of his cause, dedicates his life to re-capturing the errant ex-con and bringing him to justice. The resulting chase persists over the course of many years, culminating in a striking scene which starkly contrasts the two of them: Valjean has the opportunity to kill Javert -- the man who he knows will pursue him relentlessly to his death or re-imprisonment. Even at the height of the exchange between them Javert assures him that he will, indeed, persevere in tracking him down and bringing him to justice if Valjean spares him. And...Valjean spares him. This proves more than Javert can bear...his rigid sense of black-and-white right-and-wrong simply does not leave room in the world for the radical, self-sacrificing mercy he has encountered in the 'criminal' Valjean. In an act which is framed almost like an attempt to defeat mercy itself by making it the very thing which ends him, he commits suicide by jumping off a bridge. "For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy", says James (2:13a). In Javert's case, he is so merciless that even the offer of mercy becomes like a judgment to him.

I left the cinema reflecting on James' next words: "Mercy triumphs over judgment." (2:13b)

[1] I don't really like hearing myself so jubilantly scorning his performance. He's done some good work, and seems like a decent man. I like him. And even if none of those things held he would remain (so far as my worldview goes) an immeasurably valuable creature of a loving, awesome Creator. Is it ok for me to disparage his efforts so readily? Hmm. I reassure myself with the reflection that nigh-well everyone else in the world right now is united in pretty much the exact opposite reaction, and that, even were that not the case, the probability of him knowing, much less caring, what I think, is negligible in the "cryptographically secure" sense. That probably doesn't make it ok though, huh... Oh well, I'll leave it in now for this sake of this soul-searching segue.

[2] Not that I've read it. I thought I wanted to, when I left the cinema, till I found out it's 1,500 pages long...!


Kat(i)e said…
Hello sister! Yeah, Hugh Jackman definitely had some overly nasal moments. I blame it on the editing though, they didn't have to highlight them so. I guess they were going for "emotional".

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