Much has been written about the theology of Les Miserables–the book, the stage musical, and now the play-based film by British director (The King’s Speech) Tom Hooper.
Richard Beck‘s blog, for instance, notes the two distinct political theologies depicted in the movie and embodied in the characters of Javert and Valjean.
Charles Klamut writes poignantly about encountering Monseigneur Bienvenu, the bishop of Digne, in the novel twenty years ago, and having his own life and vocation radically and irrevocably transformed.
These appreciative takes on the movie (and book) stand in contrast to some theologically astute critics who didn’t like the film so much ( Jeffrey Overstreet, for one), who wish that the “relentless embrace of Christian iconography” had been less “heavy-handed.”
(I think Overstreet’s review is right about a few things, and wrong about many others, but that’s a post, perhaps, for another day).
Much has also been written about Hooper’s decision to have the actors sing live on set (almost unheard of in filmed musicals), a tiny ear piece piping in a just-off-set keyboard accompanist who was able to adjust to each singer’s in- and of-the-moment interpretive choices. And there’s very little unsung speech in Les Mis the movie. Noting that even in the most musical of musicals, there is always that jarring moment when, after long stretches of spoken dialogue, a song breaks out, Hooper felt that
there’s something creatively and intellectually more honest in saying ‘this is a world where people communicate through songs.’
These breaks with movie-musical convention are accompanied by yet another of Hooper’s artistic decisions: to film the musical’s principle players in relentless close-up. (This feature of the film may also be its most mocked). And that some of the movie’s main characters are not classically-trained singers: also the subject of much disparaging ink. Russell Crowe, especially, as Inspector Javert has been heavily criticized in the American media, though I agree with Peter Bradshaw of the London Guardian who suggests that Crowe
offers the most open, human performance I have seen from him. His singing is so sweetly unselfconscious that there is something paradoxically engaging about his Javert, even when he’s being a cruel, unbending law-officer and royalist spy.
It was also Crowe who offered an insight to Hooper early on in the movie’s production when he noted that many of the musical’s sung sililoquies are like prayers (“people praying out loud or in their head”). As such, it seems all the more important–even urgent–that the audience observe these pray-ers in intimate proximity (as only film can make possible), not at a safe and spacious distance. By the time Valjean reprises the song/prayer “Bring Him Home” we have seen his tears many times, witnessed grief and regret, repentance and resolution, peace and contentment on his face. We have seen the raw physicality of prayer: the wrestling with God (Fantine’s I Dreamed a Dream), the doubt and despair (Javert’s Suicide); we have been moved by the tenderness, the vulnerability of such prayer (Eponine’s On My Own and Marius’s exquisite Empty Chairs at Empty Tables).
Which is why the imperfect voices of some of Les Miserables’s cast are perfect for this vision of Victor Hugo’s masterful story. Desperate prayers from desperate hearts don’t always sound beautiful to the ear. But perhaps at the heart of Hugo’s and Hooper’s story of the poor ones, the wretched ones, the miserable ones is the (theological) truth that imperfect voices raised in song and prayer to God are always, always beautiful.