Monday, June 30, 2014

The Redeemed Jean Valjean

Jean Valjean is nothing now! Another story must begin!

When Valjean (Hugh Jackman) wails this line, a story has already taken place that sets the tone for the rest of the story. After living twenty years under the ruthless eye of Inspector Javert (Crowe), Valjean is a hardened and forgotten man. "I have learned to hate the world, the world that always hated me... this is all I have lived for, this is all I have known..." he sings. In one transforming act of mercy at the hands of a noble bishop, Valjean is crushed and made new. Now given the chance at redemption, Valjean rejoins the miserable world a free man with new determination. But what a miserable world it is.

Without giving away too much, by the time the credits roll and tomorrow comes, Jean Valjean has behaved selflessly from the moment of his conversion to the last sweeping musical note of the movie. Two characters play an enormous role in his transformation, the most obvious being the bishop. The bishop (tenderly played by Colm Wilkinson) sees Valjean as a desperate man in need of grace instead of a soulless convict. He treats Valjean with love and respect, and when Valjean wrongs him, the bishop covers Valjeans sins and offers him another chance, calling him brother. For all real intents and purposes, the bishop represents the voice of God in a truly beautiful way that is sealed when he surprisingly appears a second time at the end of the movie. Generally speaking, movies have not been kind to clergy. But the bishop of Les Miserables is a man of warmth, tenderness, and hospitality, whose love and grace are a glorious reflection of the God he serves. Valjean sees God in the bishop, and he is permanently and irrevocably changed. Because of the actions of the bishop, Valjean puts his past behind him and becomes a picture of grace and redemption ("I"ll escape now from that world... from the world of Jean Valjean...Jean Valjean is nothing now! Another story must begin!"), never forgetting the kindness that saved his soul. Later it is clear that as a result of this transformation, Valjean will extend grace and mercy to others who are not unlike what he was.

A second more subtle influence on the heart of Jean Valjean is Cosette, the girl who becomes his daughter. In a selfless act, Valjean seeks out the orphaned daughter of a prostitute and saves her from the sordid innkeeper she has been in the "care" of. Cosette's innocence and immediate love for him move Valjean. He indicates that she has touched his heart in a way that he has seemingly never been touched before ("you have brought the gift of life and love so long denied me..."). Suddenly Valjean is no longer alone. From this point onward, Valjean dedicates his life to protecting hers, and placing her happiness before his own, to the point of standing in the way of harm to protect the man she loves. Despite her abusive background, Cosette embodies innocence, and Valjean strives to protect the fragility of it in the wretched world they live in. Although at times Valjean comes off as overprotective, it becomes understandable when one considers everything that Valjean has been through, and how he longs to protect his only loved one from the gross realities of the world.

By the end of the story, Cosette, the bishop, and others commend Valjean for living according to love rather than succumbing to the many opportunities he had to take an easier way. At every turn, the stone-hearted Javert tempts Valjean to take revenge or slip back into a life of crime, taking every opportunity to remind Valjean of who he was. Javert is for this story, the Great Accuser, but is also a mirror of what Valjean could be if he succumbed to the pressure of bitterness and callousness. Yet from the moment of his conversion to the day when he breaks past the earthly barricades, Valjean refuses to ever be 24601 ever again no matter how strong the temptation.

Time and time again, Valjean could make his own life so much easier by doing something easy. Most of the time, these choices are so grey that most people wouldn't have condemned him for taking the easier road. Yet he does not. In fact, not once does he take the easier road to save himself. He strives to keep himself alive, but that is the extent of his self-interest. He adopts the illegitimate daughter of a prostitute. He willingly identifies himself as a former convict to save someone else from being imprisoned in his place. He carries his daughter's love through the sewers of the city. He spares his enemy when he had the power of life or death over him.

Jean Valjean is a redeemed man who refuses to revert back to his old self. This is the power of mercy and love, and it is portrayed beautifully in the character of Jean Valjean. Hugh Jackman's heartfelt performance as the protagonist shows Valjean not as a saint; merely a man who has seen undeserved mercy and is changed by it. Rarely has a picture of redemption ever graced the silver screen so clearly and eloquently, with such engagement and captivation. Jean Valjean encapsulates the depths of desperation and the heights of grace, and Jackman masterfully pulls the audience along this journey with every beautiful, miserable, desperate, heavenly note.

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