So, I finally saw Les Miserables a couple days ago. I shall be honest and admit right off that I have never been crazy about that musical, so I was not particularly interested in the film, despite a stellar cast, and the truly exciting trailers I saw for it. My reaction to the movie was much as I expected it to be. I admired it exceedingly. It was well shot and well cast. The music was fantastic, the sets lovingly detailed, evocative, and often beautiful. It more than earns the praise that has been heaped on it, and I am glad that I saw it.
That being the case, however, I cannot say that I really liked it. Now, before you pick up stones to cast at me, I will freely own that this is a fault that lies in myself, rather than in the movie. It just doesn’t work for me. I cannot connect with it. I don't really care about most of the characters. I pity Fantine. I have sympathy for Eponine. I understand the students and their desire to fight for the poor, angry men. But I really do not care what happens to any of them... with two great exceptions.
The first is obviously Jean Valjean. I have a particular fondness for conversion stories. I think conversions are the truest form of character development, because no matter how good a person is, there always comes a time in which on must confront oneself – the sins and the weaknesses – and the response then will determine what sort of a person will emerge from that confrontation. Jean Valjean is introduced as a defiant, but broken man. He is bitter and makes it very clear that he considers his incarceration unjust, for though he stole a loaf of bread, it was in desperation, and for someone in more need than himself. It is clear that he does not consider himself a thief. He clings to his name, which is all he has of his old life. He is Jean Valjean, not No. 24601. Yet, when he has been granted parole, he falls into the very crime he has served time for, and this time, he steals for himself. An unexpected show of mercy saves him, and he is forced to face himself; alone and falling. He flees from that particular version of Jean Valjean, leaving behind the name he had fought to keep, and is able to re-create his life again, in time, putting the past behind him, and becoming an honourable and respected man. Les Miserables tells his story truly – for very few men are ever allowed to face themselves only once. Jean Valjean must repeatedly come to terms with his past, his sins, and himself, and each time, the life he has created for himself is at stake. But he has bargained with God, and given Him his soul, and the decisions he makes are based on his understanding of what God wants of the soul in His keeping. By the end of the story, he is not merely good and honourable. He is a Man of God, who has made peace with himself – both as Jean Valjean, and as No. 24601 – and with a world that has been unkind to him. His story is a very beautiful, very Christian story, and, in my opinion, is the reason to watch Les Miserables.
The second is... Javert. I went into the movie expecting to like him. I always liked him in the musical, and he was being played by Russell Crowe, who happens to be one of my favourite actors. What I was not expecting, was for Javert to become my runaway favourite character. I was not expecting to love him, to care desperately about what became of him. I was not expecting for the death scene, which I knew full well to be coming, to shatter me as it did, nor that I would end up crying over him almost as hard as I cried over Boromir the first time I saw The Lord of the Rings.
It is very easy to make Javert the villain of the piece, as he is at odds with every single protagonist in the story. He is Jean Valjean’s nemesis. He is another nail in the coffin of poor Fontaine, who is dying of grief and despair. To the students, he is an example of What is Wrong with France, and he is the enemy of the poor, angry men, for whom they are sworn to fight. Even amongst those who do not consider him a bad man, he is generally seen as heartless; an absolutist, blindly obedient to his duty, and to the letter of the law, with no compassion or understanding of the plight of his fellow man. He is too stern and too unyielding – too hard a man to properly be considered a good man... But while all of this is true, I do not think it tells the whole truth about his character, and Truth has this odd attribute about it: that unless the whole truth is known, Truth itself can be misleading.
Unlike Jean Valjean, whom we see rise, and fall and rise again, Javert is seldom allowed to reveal anything of himself, save for the lawman's face. It is worth pointing out, that even at his hardest, Javert is scrupulously just. He will execute the law to its full extent, but not one step further than that. He is exacting, but he is neither malicious nor cruel. When Jean Valjean protests his nineteen years as a slave of the law, Javert corrects him: “Five years because of what you did, the rest, because you tried to run.” Not so much to rub it in, but to be very clear. The sentence was five years only, and he would have been free at that time, had he accepted those terms. It is also well to remember that Javert is as hard on himself as he is on other people, and when he believes himself to be in the wrong, he voluntarily submits himself to the law, without a single word of defense. Both points speak in his favour. But though he seldom lets down his guard enough for us to see beyond Javert the Man of the Law, there are little glimpses throughout the film that show him to be more than that. He is a man who delights in the view from high places, who loves beauty and order, who prays to God in the calm and beauty of the night, and who sings to the stars. He is a man who is so moved at the sight of the small, dead body of youngest of the revolutionaries that he pins his own medal to the boy’s chest; a man who could take a beating, and face violent death without fear. For all his faults - and they are many - there is a beautiful soul hiding deep within Javert. So how could a man like that be so hard that the only thing that could break him is mercy?
During the sword-fight with Jean Valjean in the Confrontation scene, Javert lets slip a single, extremely telling fact about himself: that he born in jail, and that he is from the gutter too. He knows the gutter folk, perhaps better than they know themselves, and perhaps that is part of the problem. The sight of suffering is hard to bear, especially if it recalls one’s own sufferings and compassion can be a very painful virtue. Impatience is easier, because it distances the suffering, and contempt is easier still. Somehow, like Jean Valjean, Javert has managed to bring himself up from the gutter, to become a good and respectable man. Yet, who knows what it cost him to do so. One cannot make so complete a break as that, without there being a price to it. One of the unchangeable truths about life, is that at some point, each and every person will endure the experience of watching his world fall to pieces around him - in a big way, or a small, it doesn’t matter. The result is always that same: one looks around at a world in chaos (or so it seems) and tries to bring back order and control. And that is Javert – the man who is striving with obsessive single-mindedness, to restore order to a mad, chaotic world that continually falls to pieces around his head. Perhaps the trouble with him is not that he is too hard, but that he cannot be hard enough; that he is afraid of that softness in himself, and cannot see it as strength. Perhaps it was not Mercy, pure and simple, that was too much for him to bear, but the strength that lay behind it – a strength which made him feel less strong. Perhaps it was Love when he expected hatred, and when he was hating himself. It can be extraordinarily difficult to accept love when one knows oneself to be unloveable. Whatever it was, when Javert finally fell in flame, too far to rise again on his own, I wanted, more than anything else in the world, to be able to put my hand out to him and save him – and at that moment, I did not care at all what it would cost me.