Misérable means Miserable

UnknownA lot of discussion about Les Misérables has been had.

I’ll join with some scattered thoughts under the following categories:

  1. Musicality
  2. Vulgarity
  3. Spirituality

Musicality

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and everyone has a reason for why their opinion is credible (whether it makes sense or not). I’m no different. I think I know a thing or two about music having had some formal training in music. Thus, I think my opinion about the vocals and musicality has some credibility (with me anyway).

First of all, it’s hard to do a disservice to the music. The literature itself, musically and lyrically, is tested by time and will be sung for years to come. But it was the musical experience that was totally different. Many of us have heard the best singers in the world sing the music on the world’s largest stages. Or we have heard recordings of the same. Or we have seen cinematic musicals that were recorded differently than Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables in which he had the actors sing the music directly as they were acting. No studio recording of the solo and lip syncing here. The singers are singing the take live. It’s been done before, but it’s extremely rare and therefore a mainly novel experience for today’s viewers.

It’s for that reason that some were disappointed with the soloists, particularly Russell Crowe. Adam Lambert thrashed the movie for not having professional singers and Russell Crowe agreed with him to a point in a tweet.

I don’t disagree with Adam, sure it could have been sweetened, Hooper wanted it raw and real, that’s how it is.

Yup. That’s how it is. And they knew they were breaking ground. Russell Crowe knew he was vocally out of his league.  I’ll talk more about Russell Crowe’s Javert momentarily, but let’s think about the musical experience this particular movie offered. These soloists are singing intimately and unlike a Broadway performance they did not need to project their voices to be heard by the entire audience. There was a loneliness about their singing, as if they weren’t performing for anyone to hear. And their voices were uncomfortably natural. But, to me, this is what made the movie vocals a spectacular success: it’s imperfections. Once I got my ear acquainted to it and dismissed the countless recordings I’ve heard in the past, I started to really enjoy the raw singing. It was a third dimension of Les Misérables to experience; there was the Broadway stage, the studio performances, and now the raw singing of people more adept at conveying emotions than keeping perfect pitch.

Russell Crowe as Javert

Russell Crowe as Javert

Many people disliked Russell Crowe’s singing. And I agree that he was the weakest link vocally. By the time I had made my mental adjustment as to what kind of experience this was going to be musically, his interpretation and voice didn’t bother me as much and, in fact, there was something poignant about his  performance that merits a section to itself later. In short, I don’t think Crowe’s vocal deficiencies were significant enough to diminish the power of his performance. In fact, it may have enhanced it. More later.

Vulgarities

From the reaction I’ve seen from many blogosphere moms, I wonder if they realize that “misérable” means miserable. And the “lovely ladies” are miserable. But that tricky French accent mark sometimes throws people off. Or maybe they forget the title completely. Victor Hugo was the Charles Dickens of France, with a Dickensian flair for hyperbolic characters, extreme ugly in contrast to angelic purity. And, like Dickens, he had a zealot’s passion to expose the injustices of social stratification. The libretto of the 1980s musical was written first by a Frenchman who clearly imbibed the republican ideals of Victor Hugo and tried to capture in song the essence of Hugo’s thousand page tome. Apparently, most people think he did just fine. The point, however, is that Lovely Ladies is satire at its best. As one literary critic put it, “in satire irony is militant.” And the irony of Lovely Ladies is, indeed, harsh and in your face. It’s militant.

Lovely Ladies is sung by prostitutes in sarcastic despair and craven and lecherous misanthropes and a broken woman. It’s a trio of misery.

Many conservative-minded and cautious parents objected to this vulgar and brutal scene in Les Misérables, insisting that the Lovely Ladies was over-the-top in its portrayal of the street life.  I actually thought it was fine. Gritty at times, yes, but it certainly wasn’t titillating. And Hooper didn’t intend for it to be. I thought it was fine because it forced the viewer to see the ugly without gratifying any secret fantasy. These were not Pretty Woman hookers. These were like the sick and wasted women you see on Seventh Street in our city.

I was bemused by the many Christian lovely ladies in the blogosphere who were scandalized by the Lovely Ladies song (and Master of the House). Haven’t they ever listened to the actual words of that song? The lyrics are famous. The movie did not falsely advertise itself. It was a screenplay of the famous musical. What movie were they going to see? And what did they expect?   “[H]ungry for a poke” doesn’t mean a Facebook poke, for crying out loud. And a “thick one” is not talking about a french baguette. I’m just sayin’. It’s crass. It’s rude. It’s ugly. It’s sailor talk.

It’s miserable.

And the problem with trying to depict that kind of misery with all of its crass is that there is no way in the world anyone can do it without offending somebody’s sensibilities. In the previous paragraph I’ve offended somebody, I know. It’s the risk the artist takes. And though he may occasionally push the envelop too far for most people, he has succeeded if he wins the sympathy battle by getting people to feel the right things at the right times. In Lovely Ladies, no one but a pig in the audience is feeling any desire to ogle the degraded women for personal gratification.

The art that is most harmful to Christians is not the art that has scenes with bad language or uncomfortable depictions of evil acts. It is, instead, the art that has us almost involuntarily sympathizing with the wicked. We all know, for instance, that we shouldn’t sympathize with the vigilante murder of a bully, but if the artist has captured our affections with his storytelling and we are sympathizing, literally feeling with, the protagonist even if we know that his actions are morally reprehensible then we have succumbed to worldliness. But Tom Hooper didn’t give anyone an opportunity to sympathize with the sex-crazed sailors and foul-mouth thieves. He showed it and we were all led by his artistry to recoil in hasty disassociation from the wanton lust, greed, injustice, and bawdy humor. In a packed theater there were no laughs at the crass jokes. Nobody wanted to identify with them. There was comic relief when the master of the alehouse pretended to love Cosette and laughter erupted then, but during all the crass singing prior to that it was relatively subdued. Humanity embarrassed by humanity.  Count that as a win for the producer.

I wrote this for a friend’s thread on Facebook:

We saw it and I thought it was fantastic. There were some bawdy scenarios, yes, but I thought they masterfully succeeded at making the whole hovel bar and prostitution scene unattractive and demeaning to both women and men. As for the tawdry vulgarities and the “lovely ladies” song, there were no cheap laughs or gratuitous opportunities to lust if anyone was looking for it. There was no skin to be seen except for lots of cleavage that actually succeeded in presenting the plebeian street women as desperate female fops. It was a turn off. On purpose. If anything, it had the effect of making sex seem like something fun for only pigs, and that’s sad too. But in that context, brutally realistic. Perhaps I’ve been around street people a lot, but I didn’t find it offensive at all.

Instead, I found it inspiring me to want to rescue the women on Seventh Street and incarcerate the pimps that use them. It made me want to teach a nobler culture and walk into the center of broken poverty and point to a better way, a brighter future, and mercy. It made me want to stop at the bars and say, “You’ve been made for better things. There’s this Good News called mercy from God.”

Mercy. Wonderful mercy. That leads to the third category.

Spirituality

Much is made about the Christian themes in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, but I want to opine on a theme that was in this particular performance, perhaps unintended: Russell Crowe’s Javert. In most performances Javert, in typical Victorian sentimentalism, is presented as a beastly man, evil personified, a terrifying darkness with a booming voice, meant to contrast with the noble and good Jean Valjean. This was shockingly different, and probably one reason Russell Crowe is criticized more than any other actor.

Crowe’s Javert seemed normal. A man under the dominance of the law. A person that believed in right and wrong. A man who was doing his best to do right. He looked pathetically dedicated, crushed by the burden of his own zeal, worn out by morality, a religious man that had never become acquainted with mercy.

He looked like I once looked.

Javert was the “elder brother” from Jesus’ parable. He was not that bad, bad prodigal. He honored the law, did his best, and believed that mercy threatened justice. He did not realize that mercy is the handmaiden of justice. The priest who forgave Valjean was the only one who could give mercy because he was the only one justly offended. But in Javert’s world it was a law that knew no mercy.

If Crowe was trying to look evil, he failed. He looked normal. He looked like a pathetic do-gooder that had committed his soul to being scandalized by all that which was, well, miserable. I see Javert in church on Sunday. He relentlessly pursues good, exactitude, and righteousness. He’s chafed when mercy is shown. He believes it’s a sign of weakness to refuse to exact the punishment called for by the letter of the law. He believes that he will never need mercy.

And he sings with conviction, albeit not very good. In fact, tomorrow the bulk of church goers will be Javerts. They will be in suits. They’ll be in the choir. They’ll be protective parents. They’ll be scandalized religious people. They’ll be people unacquainted with the misery on Seventh Street. They’ll be people who don’t screw up. Javerts live rightly. And most people who live rightly go to church. Yes, Crowe’s Javert looked pathetically normal.

Crowe’s Javert looked sad. His performance interpreted a man who was obligated to be right and to hate whatever was not legal. In the end Javert exacted justice on himself, committing suicide, unable to find mercy because he had been cursed with the affliction of always being on the right side of the law, therefore never needing mercy. Because mercy is for broken people. It’s for people who find themselves outside of the camp, outside the lines, outside the safety of acceptance, and hunted by the law. Javert dutifully sacrificed and served the law, and because he failed the law by not bringing Valjean to justice he dutifully killed himself.

I was Javert.

Few people fought for right like I have. Few people relentlessly pursued justice. Few people were made unhappy by the crushing burden of the law. The law will kill you. And it almost killed me. Like Javert, not only could I not accept mercy on other people but I could not accept myself as a broken person because, well, it wasn’t right.

But I found mercy when I found myself hunted by the law. When the law made me realize there was no escape, I found mercy.

Sadly, the movie is only a sentimental story because Christian themes are not ultimately helpful without Christ. But the rest of the story for all the world to know is that, like Jean Valjean who stole the silver from the priest, we need to meet our Priest face to face and get his blessing. Jesus, our Priest, said to the Javerts of the world,

Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” For I came not to call the righteous [Javert], but the lawbreakers [Valjean]. Matthew 9:13

images-1Only the priest who has been personally sinned against can justly grant mercy.

The genius of Crowe’s portrayal was its humanity. And, in the end, that’s why I’m glad his voice sounded so human. He didn’t snarl. He didn’t have an other-worldly thunder about him. In some places where other vocalists have thundered with terrifying evil, Crowe’s voice delivered an enslaved yell of a man caught in the dilemma of his own convictions. Hollywood likes to portray the evil antagonist as something that none of us could ever be. Crowe made it look like any of us could be Javert. It was incredibly authentic. Whether he meant it or not.

As a Christian man who has found mercy, I came away from the movie sad that millions will see this story and, for them, it’s only a teaser. Without a clear understanding of the Gospel of Jesus’ mercy to sinners, they grasp at an ideal of mercy that can never be realized until they know the terror of the law. And they can never know the terror of the law until they know that, according to the Bible, they are les misérables. 

Only  les misérables find mercy.

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76 Responses

  1. Fantastic article!!!

    • Excellent article and excellent description of Javert. I read the book and have only seen the other movie with Liam Neeson. But the explanation you give of Javert is exactly how I saw him while reading the book. Maybe a little more evil, which, yes, I was a little surprised not to see in the movie, but definitely by the end it really makes sense that he is just a normal guy who did what he thought was right all his life, until he didn’t and was then tormented by his choice. Such a great movie, but like you said, many people will miss the greatness due to not knowing the true meaning of mercy.

  2. [...] Original post: Misérable means Miserable [...]

  3. Saying Crowe was the weakest link cedes to much to the critics in my opinion. Sometimes we can miss the forest for the trees.

    Thanks for the excellent post.

  4. Excellent post. I just got home from seeing the movie and now that my mind has wrapped around the fact that I am not watching a Broadway musical I think I would enjoy it a lot more. Thank you for your thoughts!

  5. Great thoughts, Bob! Having never seen Les Mis before or heard anything but Susan Boyle sing a song from the musical, I was blown away by the powerful portrayal of a great story filled with echoes and shadows of the gospel. I guess having nothing to compare it to helped me appreciate it for what it was, and I felt it was masterful. Finally, thinking about Javert as an older brother type definitely adds to the layers of meaning in the story.
    Thanks!

  6. THANK YOU for this article. After seeing the movie, people asked me “well, how was it?” Knowing many would be offended by the cleavage, language, and some of the scenes, I tried to describe it very poorly by saying something like “well, there are some raunchy parts in it, but they don’t make it attractive like Hollywood usually does…when Fantine slips to the very bottom of life in I Dreamed a Dream, you feel absolutely heart broken for her!”

    All that to say, thank you. I will be directing people to this article! I have never seen the musical or heard the music until the movie, but we listened to an audio version of the book three years ago–our second daughter is named Cosette Faith–”Victorious People of Faith”.

  7. Well said. Law vs. Grace.

  8. Good post. I was impressed with the underlying implication of law vs. the grace of God as shown when the camera cut to the cross immediately after Javert’s solo on the rooftop. To me, that summed up the whole movie in one scene!

    I admit, I was disappointed with Crowe’s voice, but I can see your points, and it is true that the second time seeing the movie helps to change one’s expectations of vocal excellence for all, and the viewer can appreciate the music, acting, scenery, and complete package that’s offered.

  9. A perfect description of what the movie is really about. I appreciate Russel Crowe’s performance that much better now!

  10. Wow. The older brother analogy was helpful for me. Thank you for your insight. Truly, we all are miserable without Jesus. I’ve known myself to the be the older brother plenty of times. You’ve given me new ways to think through a most loved story.

  11. I, too, saw myself in Javert: legalistic, judgmental, prideful in my righteousness. Which is why it tore me up to watch him fall into the river. Even though I knew the story, there was a hope in my heart that he would humble himself and accept the mercy he was being offered. But this story could never have a false Hollywood happily-ever-after ending for Javert, just as this life will not have a happily-ever-after ending for those of us who won’t accept God’s mercy.

  12. Great perspective on this movie, Bob! Thanks for sharing it with mercy and without apology!

  13. I haven’t seen it yet, but now I need to. Thanks for this. As a Christian woman, I appreciate your raw transparency and your thoughtful commentary.
    Tina @ Life is Good
    http://kmdlifeisgood.blogspot.com/

  14. I was captivated by the movie. I had never seen the stage play or read the book so I had no preconceived ideas or comparisons to make. That said, I just want to thank you for the article. I will be sharing it because you articulated my thoughts so much better than I ever could. I will most definitely go to see it again.

  15. Ugly, raw and human… where only death brought peace… like life.

  16. So very well said.

  17. Excellent Article, thank you!

  18. Great review! I couldn’t agree more about Russell Crowe as Javert. Javert has always been an interesting, tormented character to me, and I was happy that Crowe portrayed that side of him.

  19. Well written, thank you for sharing! In the end, Javert thinks by his works and the law he shall be saved, but Valjean knows that it’s by grace :)

  20. Crowe’s singing wasn’t raw and real or more human. It was disgraceful and IMHO, emasculated the passionate and calculated and ambitious Javert. Crowe’s performance — mind you, not his singing — was flat as a pancake, ironically enough because he was singing. Javert is not a “normal” person, and your discussion of Hugo’s Dickensian flare for the hyperbolic should perhaps compel us to ask why Crowe would choose to portray such a flaccid and unremarkable character — and why the director would choose such a voice without any grit or power or color.

    Certainly this story is all about law vs. grace, but the film seems more stilted toward the miserable than the actual conflict, and so the power of Valjean’s redemption and likewise Javert’s suicide is lost in all the gritty. I have no problem with gritty or raw or real, but when the artifice of the show is built on singing, you better darn well sing, not whisper and falsetto and fake your way through the score with histrionics….

    • Well now Andrew, it seems you have given us a fine demonstration of what it means to have the law vs. grace. Christ’s Name is not mentioned. It is not a Christian film in that respect. What we get out of it, we get out of it because we are Christians. But raw is better than seasoned, when it comes to the dynamics of what Hugo would have wanted conveyed by his story. It is a story about brokenness and redemption and how the pharisee of that day, Javert, responded when mercy was shown to him and he could not be broken enough to accept it.

      • “Sadly, the movie is only a sentimental story because Christian themes are not ultimately helpful without Christ.”… Really? I suppose that the crucifixes, references to leading people to salvation and claiming the soul for God, people kneeling in front of the altar in a church, and Valjean directly addressing “Sweet Jesus” (in the context of a prayerful searching of his soul) must all point to this film being Islamic, Jewish, or Buddhist?! Seriously, in the historical context of a Catholic France and with all the religious imagery and language, it is undeniable that Valjean experienced redemption through Christ. He even says as much in his “Who Am I?” song where he says that his soul belongs to God–while looking at or at least in short proximity to a Crucifix, which portrays Jesus suffering on the Cross. With all this evidence, it is simply not credible to say that this is a sentimental story which has Christian themes but not Christ. The fact that it is Catholic Christianity ought not to blind you into saying that Christ was not there.

    • I agree, the artifice of the show is built on singing. But Hooper’s goal was not to do a cinematic version of the musical. Although he recognized a good thing and brought the music of Les Miserables to the movie, he stuck a little closer to the book (with all of its grittiness and ugliness) than the musical did, and the book is “stilted toward the miserable,” hence the title.

  21. I’ve seen Les Mis on stage but I have not seen the movie, and don’t plan on seeing it in theaters, here’s why:

    I agree with much of your post, and Les Mis was one of my favorite musicals I’ve ever seen, BUT when I saw it on stage I HATED Lovely Ladies and Master of the House. When I listen to the music I always skip the tracks too. Simply because I would rather think on “perfect” and “noble” things. I’m the first to admit how much the media I take in sways my moods.

    I often felt like those songs were manure frosting on a perfectly good cupcake. I understand the need to be true to the subject matter, but they are things I ***personally*** don’t care to see. I understand others don’t have the same standards even among Christians, which is perfectly fine.

    I did feel the need to warn my facebook page about the downsides of the movie after reading a review only because I knew many of my followers wouldn’t expect to be seeing something so gritty and might be uncomfortable in theaters. I always check parental reviews before going to see a movie for that reason. There are certain things ***I*** just don’t want to see.

    With that being said, as much as I LOVED Les Mis, it was never one I felt comfortable seeing again on stage because of the truly vulgar scenes (and even if they are depicting history they’re still vulgar). I am so HAPPY they made this into a movie, because now when it comes out on DVD I can rent and fast forward, just like I do with my CD. And I do plan on renting it once it comes out and perhaps buying it, I haven’t decided yet.

    One final thought, although I’m sure there are Christian men who aren’t enticed by an over abundance of clevage on a dirt smeared prostitute, but a dirt smeared prostitute showed an over abundance of cleavage, for one reason and one reason only, to entice men. I’m sure there will be plenty of such men in the theaters who find this appealing.

    Okay I lied this is my final thought: I have great compassion for women trapped in a life a sexual destitution, whether it be pornography, stripping, or prostitution. It’s horrid and we as Christians if we’re not in the trenches ourselves should support those who are financially who help these women. If good can come out of the movie rendition of lovely ladies then Praise The Lord, but I personally will be fast forwardin.

    • I hate it when I re-read my comments and find a bunch of typos, but you get the gist.

    • @KM Logan – I find your take on the Lovely Ladies confusing. Firstly, as a twenty-something year old man, I can tell you that there is nothing less appealing than a filthy, mud smeared, busty prostitute, as is depicted in the film. I, and I believe most viewers would agree, was filled not with lust but with pity. When Fantine mourns “I Dreamed a Dream,” she is singing the truth, not just for herself, but for all the Lovely Ladies. What is Fantine without the Lovely Ladies?

      It is far too easy to paint a “perfect” and “noble” picture – to avoid Burnside and E 82nd, in the case of my city. It is easy, and it is a lie. To avoid these harsh, gritty, painful truths is, as I see it, to attempt to escape reality. There is no beauty without truth.

      That is why I think that Les Mis without the Lovely Ladies is Christ without the Cross (or the tax collectors, prostitutes, and various other sinners he hung out with). No one jeers with the soldiers as they scourge Christ. No one laughs with the crowd as they mock Him on the cross. And no one (I hope) says “I like Jesus, but I skip over the whole suffering-and-death bit because it makes me uncomfortable.”

    • I understand what you are saying about the vulgarity, and the desire to focus on the true, noble, lovely, and admirable. While it is emotionally wrenching to see human sexuality degraded to such a tragic extent, actually the harder thing for me to get over was the abuse of Jesus’ name, not only in Master of the House but more subtly in other parts of the musical.

      It is sad truth that the people who would rather Jesus not be mentioned with reverence in public will likely not bat an eye about its use here as a casual interjection. Those of us who love Him most may well cringe to hear his name tossed about carelessly, in mockery, or in anger. The fact that those who do this in our society may claim to not “mean anything by it” makes it all the sadder, because the one who they are disrespecting is their–*our* only hope, and deserves only adoration from those that he faced an ugly, miserable death to save.

      The difficulty, of course, is that using the name disrespectfully is not the only way to use the divine names in vain. It came to my attention while reviewing the music that Javert’s repeated declarations about “the path of the Lord” and “the way to please the Lord” were another way to use God’s name in vain, and a way that we as Christians tend to tolerate more readily. This law mentality is less threatening to many Christians (like myself) because it tells part (by no means all) of the scriptural truth about sin and righteousness, and appeals to our own sense of pride that we have kept ourselves separate from the more obvious sins, the ones that lead to the visible misery depicted in the film.

      As to avoiding the film because it depicts profanity and degraded human sexuality (or vulgarity, as we sometimes call it) I am afraid that if I avoided all such depictions, I would not only have to shut my eyes to most modern cultural media (which would not be a huge loss) but also to almost all of reality in our sin-sick world, and even significant portions of scripture.

      Indeed, as I read through Genesis with my 10-year-old son, I find myself often wishing that I could just skim over the parts where moral issues get a bit gritty. Right now I am trying to figure out how best to tackle the rape of Dinah. Is he too young to hear it? Rather, I expect that he will have heard of worse things on the bus. Certainly I had by his age. And if we believe “all scripture is God-breathed and profitable” so that we can learn what God wants us to know, then how can I dare to claim that I know better than God what stories are too ugly to belong in His word? Am I claiming to be Holier than God, who is too Holy to regard any sin with anything but hatred, and yet used sinners in his plan of salvation?

      Unless I walk with my son continually to cover his eyes and stop his ears, he is going to become aware of those sinful things done in secret which the bible says are disgraceful even to mention. I think that stories like Les Miserables aim to do what the Bible does so masterfully, which is to place sin and its consequences in the context of God’s mercy as well as his just wrath.

      Because, of course, the danger in avoiding all vulgarity and profanity is that we cut ourselves completely off from those in the world who most need salt and light. If we are told, to go to all nations and make disciples, do we dare say “Well… once they clean up their act a bit. Maybe get circumcised or something?”

      I’m not saying we need to wallow in worldliness or glorify it. But a look at the movie in question is enough to convince me that the overall context really points toward Christ and his grace, not at all towards licentiousness.

      Again, I understand the desire to avoid things which may not be beneficial to our service to God. For me, this movie was not only permissible, but very beneficial, warts and all.

  22. HELLO…. I am your newest follower because your reasoning and apologetic…and insight ROCKS. Thanks for this very insightful, honest and intelligent review. I agree down to the narrowest point. Having NOTHING to compare it to (I’d heard about but never read or had seen the entire production), I thought this “miserable” story was everything it needed to be –for what it was/is. In fact…it’s raw-ness is what makes is something that resonates..not the beauty of the story…the real, horrible and ugly, damp mess of it all. Life is like this and shame on us when we insist that we must always be delivered through media into something other than what is real. Blessings!

  23. I have always loved this musical and as a man I must say that to say that the produces had in mind “enticing” men with these scenes is just plain nonsense. I loved the movie and thought Hooper did a better job with “Lovely Ladies” and “Master of the House”. In the musical these numbers come off almost as comic and the Thenardies as comic foils. In the novel the Thenardies are the villains (not Javer). The “Lovely Ladies” in the movie does presents the prostitutes as tragic, not funny and I thought (spoiler alert) that including the extraction of Fantine’s teeth in the movie was extremely important, It is in the novel but not the musical. To have to sell a locket or your hair is one thing but to sell your teeth shows how tragic Fantine’s life had become.

    One last comment I would say about those who disapprove of the vulgarity in the musical and movie. This attitude seems to me more related to Victorian prudishness and not Biblical Christianity. There are scenes in the bible much more “vulgar” than anything in the musical or movie.

  24. [...] Excellent thoughts:  http://bobbixby.wordpress.com/2013/01/05/miserable-means-miserable/ [...]

  25. So, so very well said. Good job.

  26. Excellent!

  27. You said what I tried to say, much better and in more depth.

    http://fromsinkingsand.blogspot.com/2012/12/my-take-on-les-miserables.html

    I appreciated your take – I do think that the prostitutes and the inn people could have been portrayed with less (not no) cleavage. It was hard to be there with my young adult son in some of those scenes.

    Both the big scenes and the small closeups were really something. The teeth on those underclass people and the dirt under their fingernails said a lot.

    Thanks for an objective review.

  28. Thank you for this brilliant review of one of my favorite musicals. I LOVE the stage production and I have already seen the movie twice, with plans to see it a third time this week. I was not impressed by Russell Crowe’s performance but your post will cause me to look at it differently this time around. Thank you for opening up my eyes to a different perspective on his portrayal.

    It saddens me that people so easily dismiss the gritty parts of the story when I believe it is the grittyness of the story that adds to its beauty. While not my favorite parts of the movie or musical, the story is incomplete without Lovely Ladies and Master of the House and I wouldn’t dream of removing either one of them. Beauty can be found anywhere even in the seedy parts of Lovely Ladies and the reprobate part of Master of the House. We just have to be courageous enough to see it.

    Thanks again for a brilliant piece. I really did enjoy reading it.

  29. My favorite part of the movie was watching Javert balance perfectly upon the pinnacle of the building, walking with precise step and immaculate shoes. A single misstep would have been fatal! His song “Stars” expanded upon the allegory and completely gripped me. Personally, I thought Russell Crowe was brilliant and though he might not have been the best vocalist in the production, he still did a great job as Javert. I have seen the musical and really appreciate the fact that the movie did not glamorize or make sport of the filth in the story.

  30. I went to go see this movie for the first time ever (never read the book and never saw the musical before) for my 5-year anniversary with my wife, and I found it deeply moving and incredibly human. I’m not much of a music guy, but I too saw that the singing was a bit raw (but I thought it sounded raw on Hugh Jackman’s part as well), but ultimately it’s the execution of the story and its emotions that won me over.

    I do wish that more of Christ was presented here, because it’s only a faded hope without the true redeemer of our sins agains the law.

    Wonderful review and helpful.

  31. I see most of the Christian reviewers on the page liked it. My question – do you see God’s grace here, and was that the purpose behind the producer, the director, the actors and Hollywood? Or – was this another attempt to obtain money from Christians by using our emotions, and not the truth. Remember, pornography or any number of other sins may be truth – but is is God’s will that we go to theaters to view it?

  32. Reblogged this on Who's running this place anyway? and commented:
    Loved this post on Les Miserables! I ESPECIALLY love that this new movie has enabled millions to experience something similar to the Broadway musical experience that has had so many humming its tunes since the eighties. Also, his particular treatment of Javert was right on in my book — imagine yourself, or your typical Hollywood star singing these lines, and you must acknowledge that he had a difficult task. Also, I read a review saying he sang his songs too high (or maybe attempted them too high) — that’s where the music was written, and he was singing properly in that range. Either way – read the review. Tell me if you agree -

  33. I am a very conservative homeschooling mother of 12 children. We have not watched television for 20+ years. We are very careful about the movies and videos that we see.

    However . . . I LOVED Les Mis. (bet I surprised you on that one). :)

    Two of my adult children were in a musical production of Les Mis when they were in high school, and it has been a family favorite ever since.

    I absolutely agree with you 100% on your review . . . from the music (I, too, am musically trained) . . . to the “Lovely Ladies”. I am one that wants to cover my husband’s eyes when we see women with cleavage showing. But . . . not the case in this movie. Did not bother me one bit.

    I will write a FB post with links to your review. Thank you so much for your very thorough insights into so much of the movie.

    Laurel
    mama of 12

  34. perhaps some folks who have posted here need to be re-introduced to B. Brecht…

    • Do you think the general public is much aware of Bertolt Brecht in this day and age? I appreciate being reminded, but if you did not study theatre in some depth, I’ll eat my hat, pins and all. Maybe my corset, too.

      If you meant to note how much the garish make-up and hair and cartoonishly raggedy costuming on the prostitutes tended to alienate the audience from them, I would whole-heartedly agree with you. Although, the close-ups during some of the quieter parts of “Lovely Ladies” brought the human broken-ness of these women clearly into focus. Painfully so. So cinema allowed for the best of both worlds–an alienation that prevented all but the most depraved from feeling lust, and yet a connection on the human level that allowed a deeper sympathy. After all, this level of depravity is accessible to any human being alive, barring God’s grace to restrain our sin and our circumstances.

  35. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’ve seen the stage show mutiple times, and you’ve perfectly captured the themes, the ugliness, and the beauty. I’m confused, though, by assertions that the story merely has Christian themes and isn’t actually Christian. I’m not entirely sure what counts as a “Christian” story, if Les Mis doesn’t. It is a story of redemption through encounters with God. Jesus tells us to love God and to love our neighbor, and both are explicitly on display here. The bishop literally redeems Valjean. He buys his freedom with silver for the express purpose of giving Valjean over to God. This act of mercy ripples through multiple characters. Valjean risks his freedom to honor Fantine. He redeems Cosette. He offers his life to God as a sacrifice for Marius and later offers his freedom to Javert in order to save Marius. The story makes clear that in the midst of human brokeness and misery, selfless love for others (Christ-like love) is the only thing of value. This concept is repeated over and over again: the bishop’s love for Valjean; Fantine’s love for Cosette; Valjean’s love for Fantine, Cosette, and Marius; Eponine’s love of Marius. Like us, the recipients of this selfless love have done nothing to merit it (except, arguably, Fantine), and these selfless acts of love are what keep Les Mis from being unbearable misery. They shine a light on our only hope in this world. True love. A love so great that the Creator of Heaven and Earth would send his Holy Son to die for the wretched and the lost. A movie doesn’t have to expressly mention Christ to be Christian — like the Chronicles of Narnia, for example. In Les Mis, Christ is palpably present in the many acts of love that can only come from Him.

  36. You have exactly expressed my thoughts in a way I could have never done. Superb writing.

  37. Reblogged this on The Dark Horse and commented:
    I couldn’t have said it better myself. This guy hits all the important parts of a fabulous film

  38. Reblogged this on Contrast and commented:
    Good review of Les Miserable, particularly the last third. I thought the movie was fantastic

  39. [...] Reblogged from Pensees: [...]

  40. Reblogged this on The Sovereign Logos and commented:
    Why Les Misérables was miserable in all the right ways.

  41. Not yet seen this, but liked Geoff Rush in ’98 version. Hard to beat him, esp. with a Crowe trying to sing!

  42. Well said. Well said indeed. Praying that many will see the truth and grace Hugo intended them to encounter

  43. Haven’t seen the movie yet,(plan to on Friday) but I have seen the play and the 25th Anniversary DVD. I am so delighted that I read this excellent article first! Can’t remember the last time I read such a thought-provoking article. So appreciative of the time you took to unpackage this wonderful story/movie and for the challenge to see it on so many levels.

  44. Very Very well said, I took my 13 year old daughter to see Les Mis on the night I gave her a Purity Ring. It was a HUGE spiritual conversation initiator! So much rich sub-text and my opinion of Lovely Ladies was almost exactly this authors interpretation. Bravo!

    • James, speaking from the perspective of a grandmother…what a wonderful way to share w/your daughter! We do live in this God forsaken culture…but the consequences are always much different than whispered by the enemy of our souls.

  45. “These soloists are singing intimately and unlike a Broadway performance they did not need to project their voices to be heard by the entire audience. There was a loneliness about their singing, as if they weren’t performing for anyone to hear. And their voices were uncomfortably natural.”

    Because of this and because of the extreme closeups, we the audience experience a feeling of eves dropping on things exceptionally personal that we ought not to see: the wretched, desperate, agonizing cries of miserable souls from their crosses, as latter-day Christs: “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” Their singing is not performance for anyone to hear, but for God to hear. God may be, as the Philosopher Karl Barth,said, “Wholly Other.” But by sending His Son to assume human form and the agonies that come with it, He established the divine connection with the wretched of the earth and provided grace in the form of redemption for humanity. Through Christ, God has heard the people’s cries — their “song” — and provided a path to a better world. Their may be “justice” as Javert says, for those who follow the way of the law. But, there is salvation, as Jean Valjean learns, for those who follow the way of the Lord. For the secular humanist Victor Hugo to convey this message so movingly without proselytizing is a testament to his greatness as an author and, perhaps, as a man.

  46. Excellent review. I saw Les Miserables on stage many times and had the lyrics memorized in my youth. At first I was somewhat disappointed by Russell Crowe’s singing but I think you hit it spot on. I listened to the music on CD for the first time in years over the weekend. I had already re-assessed my feelings when I stumbled upon your blog. I also haven’t understood the objection to the sexuality shown in the movie. I had no problem bringing my 6th grader to see the movie. She’s already been exposed to worse on family friendly tv.

  47. Excellent article! Very well put!!

  48. Reblogged this on Pastor George Fike and commented:
    Very thoughtful look at the recent movie version. Russell Crowe: you worked for me like what the guy says.

  49. For me ,as far as I’m concern,I prefer the movie version that was starred by Liam Neeson & Geoffrey Rush.

  50. I just have a few questions to all the Christians who like this movie and see nothing really wrong with the vulgarities, nudity and sex portrayed….how does that work when the Scripture says in Ephesians 5:12 “For it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret.” If it is a shame even to speak of the things mentioned in the previous verses fornication, uncleanness, covetousness, filthiness etc. how is it somehow ok to view it portrayed before our eyes and hear it with our ears? How is it not like Lot as it says in II Peter 2:7-8 “And delivered just Lot, vexed with the filthy conversation of the wicked:(For that righteous man dwelling among them, in seeing and hearing, vexed his righteous soul from day to day with their unlawful deeds;)
    How does that work with Psalm 101:3 “I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes: I hate the work of them that turn aside; it shall not cleave unto me.” How does it help us to think on things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtueous or praiseworthy as it says in Philippians 4:8?
    As far as the spirituality of the film, does it show redemption through repentance of sin to God and receiving the free gift of salvation bought with the precious blood of the Lord Jesus Christ? Does it show “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)? No, it shows a works based salvation, one of obtaining heaven by making things right with the people you have wronged and doing good. That is false gospel.
    I cannot help but think of a quote mentioned often while in Bible college, “What you allow in moderation, your children will do in excess”.

    • Very well put, Kim…and thanks for using scripture to make your point instead of your opinions. If only others would do the same.

      • The questions are fair, Leah, but just to use Scripture to make a point “instead of your opinions” is not necessarily making a good point, but could, in fact, be veiling personal opinions. Particularly if the Scripture is not being accurately handled. You opined about the quality of her points without using Scripture.

        I do want to find time to answer the questions, but I would say here that if Ephesians 5:12 as woodenly as Kim is using it then the Bible itself is guilty of disobeying Ephesians 5:12. I think she’s missing the point, but I’ll make a post about that if time allows. Hopefully soon. I’ll also opine (with Scripture!) that the famous cliché that what parents do in moderation kids will do in excess is probably the most debunked and inaccurate moralisms I’ve observed over the years, and is, in fact, easy to refute biblically. Nonetheless, it remains a popular saying that is given almost “bible-verse” respect.

        Yet, I repeat: the questions are good questions and merit thoughtful response. Especially if we really do care about the glory of Christ as I believe Kim does (although I don’t know her) and as I know I certainly do.

  51. Very well put Kim – I guess I don’t understand the rave reviews by Christians. Sure the story is well written and is a clasic, the actors are outstanding, etc. However, is it something Christ would want His church seeing and praising? I think not – unless the true gosple of salvation is portrayed, which it is not.

  52. Thanks. Its what i felt but couldn’t put in .words

  53. [...] some good insights into Les Miserables check out Bob Bixby’s thoughts as well as the Kuyperian [...]

  54. I totally get your point(s) and it is made well. I will choose to forgo seeing the movie (or the play, listetning to the songs, etc.) because I just don’t care to even expose myself to hearing coarse words or seeing vulgarity. I have not heard every word there is to hear and don’t feel like adding to my vocabulary in that way. The Bible & the history books contain lots of wicked scenarios that conjure up images in the mind as it is. For me there is enought misery around me, on the news, in the world that I don’t enjoy seeing it performed as a musical. That’s my take. :)

  55. Excellent article, Bob. I saw Le Mis this weekend with my 20 yod and her 22 yo (Vietnamese Buddhist) college friend, “Lucy.” We all enjoyed it. Lucy has read Hugo, and when I asked her how she liked the movie adaptation, she confessed that she was most profoundly moved by Valjean’s conversion scene. Yes! Whether intentional or not, Hooper-Jackman captured the essence of the Gospel, and the message is effective for pointing to our desperate need and the LORD’s beautiful provision through His Son. I’m praying that Lucy will confess her own need for a Savior and find His perfect peace like Valjean. Thanks for your bold, thoughtful review.

  56. [...] The experience was simply amazing, and I don’t just say that because it was my first time inside a theater in almost a year. The movie was, on all fronts, overwhelming. The music, the costumes, the cinematography, the acting were all powerfully moving. However, my purpose in this post is not to discuss the aspects of filmography. (For a thorough and well-spoken critic of the movie, see this article.) [...]

  57. Dear Mr. Bixby,
    I am blown away! I am so, so thankful for your conclusions and (having not yet seen Les Mis) I am encouraged to go and see it if not for any other reason than to revisit where I came from. Once saved from the miserableness of my life, I want to savor how good, no ho GREAT, is that salvation! Thank you for writing so persuasively about true mercy~ and with a face on it~ that of Christ!
    I would like to ask permission to post the top lines of this post on my blog (Deeprootsathome.com) and then break with a “read more…” going to your link. I will go no further than 1-3, musicality – spirituality. I would mention that is it reposted with your permission if you grant it.
    Thank you for your kind consideration,
    God bless you!!
    Jacqueline

  58. Thank you for posting this!

  59. Mr Bixby,
    I just read your Les Mes review thanks to Jacqueline at Deeprootsathome. Your clarity of thinking and carefully explained rationale in reviewing this film has caused me to reconsider my decision not to see the movie. Not that I am afraid to set my eyes on the unholy– oh I have done that far too many times in this life. And God has been gracious to me, a sinner. Its that your honest consideration of the story and most provocative look at the truth that we are allthe miserable compels me to go, to see,and to revel in the reminder of how great the mercy is that was granted to me by my Lord.
    Living in grace because of Jesus,
    Michelle

  60. Excellent review. I am so glad they used the method they did for recording the vocals. It really allowed the actors to act through the music and brought so much to the film. And I absolutely agree about the bawdy scenes. My husband and I discussed how in some of the stage performances we’ve seen, “Lovely Ladies” is presented as raunchy in an almost comical way. But in the recent film, the scene was scary. There was nothing titillating about it. It was scandalous because it was heartbreaking and sickening, not because it was at all sexy. While I agree with your insights about Javert, my problem with Russell Crowe wasn’t the obvious flaws in his vocal performance but that as soon as he started singing, he seemed to stop acting. His songs were just so flat and lacking in emotion and did leave me disappointed. I was glad that they didn’t turn him into a one-dimensional villain, though.

  61. Excellent movie, and excellent review!

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