Having never seen the show on stage, but heard bits of the story as sermon illustrations over the years, I was very excited to see Les Mis last Friday night. Epic! (Spoiler alert!)
It spans Jean Valjean's life from his days as Prisoner 24601 to his death, all the while pursued by Javert. It's like a (less preachy, more human) Pilgrim's Progress with its themes of grace over law, redemption, and the human condition. Watching it felt at times overwhelming: a man sentenced to hard labour for stealing bread while bourgeois Parisians munch on macaroons and ride in plush carriages, young people in love whilst caught up in violent revolution, the terrifying domino effect of a single mother losing her job and the ensuing consequences as she tries desperately to survive, ...
One of the best moments in the movie is in the first 20 minutes or so. The Bishop of Digne is a minor character with a major impact on the story. He offers Valjean food and shelter. Desperate, this man out on parole sneaks off in the night with what silver of the church's he can carry. When the cops find him trying to sell it, they drag him in front of the bishop, who smiles and says, 'Ah, Jean, you forgot these candlesticks, take them with you too!', and when the coppers are gone he tells him to use the candlesticks to make an honest life for himself. Wow. Now that's what I call grace!
This show of mercy precipitates Valjean's transformation - he uses the candlesticks to start a business and a new life ... except there's Javert, who cannot but pursue the man who to him will always be Prisoner 24601. Javert. The voice who reminds Valjean what he was and convince him that's what he still is.
Set in 1800's France, the social conditions in the film are not that far removed from the world we live in. The more Dickensian issues in the show are things that happen all the time. Since the French Revolution, and certainly since Victor Hugo wrote his novel, we haven't got rid of poverty, violence, crime, or any of the other social ills depicted (even TB is making a resurgence!).
Surely the church today has a responsibility to show the same transforming grace that the Bishop does to Valjean. What a world we'd live in if we were that generous, that quick to forgive, and that willing to forgo our legal rights.
But sadly, we sometimes act too much like Javert, prioritizing law and order above grace and restoration. Unwilling to let things go. Determined that every act receive its due punishment (although, at least Javert is consistent and willing to be punished for his own errors). He meets a sad demise, unable to live with the forgiveness and grace that he perceives as compromised standards.
The score is fantastic (can't get 'Bring Him Home' out of my head). The singing is very impressive, if you ask me, filmed as it was live. It's not recording standard, no, but there's something very vulnerable and genuine about the performances.
But best of all, I find myself days later wanting to go back and think more about the stories within the story, and ask questions and talk about it with other people who've seen it. Now I know why Les Miserables is such great fodder for sermon illustrations!