Warning: contains spoilers!
I have a love hate relationship with Les Mis. When I first encountered it, aged 12, I didn’t have a visceral adult understanding of what it was to be in life and death need of grace: that hadn’t happened yet. Besides, I was busy eyeing up the future roles of Fantine or Éponine. As a feisty undergrad, its emotional manipulation made me rage. Not so now. I went to the cinema ready to be delighted and disgusted by this 80s’ musical monolith, but I was quietly weeping within 10 minutes at this story of super-human mercy, manifested through fallible human beings. I’d stumbled upon a grace-fest.
For those of you who don’t know the premise: prisoner 24601, Jean Valjean, has been granted parole after 19 years: five years for stealing bread for his sister’s starving child and 14 years for escape attempts. Valjean gets his papers, which mark him as a convict, meaning he is unable to find work, money or shelter. My heart hurt with its contemporary resonance. Although the probation service does an amazing job and many charities help those leaving prison find work, the prejudice experienced by Valjean is all too familiar. I work with women in the criminal justice system and have heard story after story of hard attitudes, closed doors where employment or housing is concerned, that could’ve made a difference. Today, people are still given custodial sentences for stealing food: I know of one woman who did for stealing a lasagna from Iceland to feed her children because she had no money.
Much rejected, Valjean finally experiences acceptance when he encounters a Christian – a bishop – who feeds him and offers him shelter. Not only this, but when Valjean attempts to steal the bishop’s silverware, the bishop covers for him, telling the police it had been a gift to Valjean. The bishop doesn’t wait for Valjean to change or prove himself before he offers him compassion. This act of grace changes Valjean’s life. I can’t help wondering what would happen if Christians today weren’t known for judgment but for generosity and free-flowing grace? What would our hearts, our acts, our lives look like? How often do we rush to give another chance to someone that has been so rejected? I daydream of a world where mercy triumphs over judgment, no grudges are held, where mistakes are learnt from and moved on from. Where love covers a multitude of sins.
Fantine’s fall from grace is next. It transpires she has a child who she sent away to live with an inn-keeper, who she sends money to. Fantine then loses her factory job, sells her hair and her teeth, becomes a prostitute who contracts TB. Again, I think of the women I’ve worked with in prison who’ve had their children removed by the state, who work the streets, whose drug addiction has taken its toll on their teeth and who contract all kinds of diseases. 2013 keeps invading my romanticised sung French history lesson. When Fantine dies, as she hallucinates about her daughter, I’m crying for the women I work with engaged in high-risk street life, who may die young saying the name of a child they’ve been parted from for years. And I’m praying, that those children have adoptive families like Valjean and aren’t left languishing in our over-stretched care system.
Blimey. I only came to watch a cheesy sing-a-long with my mate on a Sunday night.
I find the big chorus numbers coming from screen and not stage, lack sufficient punch. But some of the lyrics do not: “Look down look down, upon your fellow man./ Look down and show some mercy if you can.” I don’t have to look far to see those in need. Well, I start by looking in the mirror. I expect I’d be dead or institutionalised if mercy hadn’t cascaded over my life and for that, I’m profoundly grateful. So, who am I to dispense anything but kindness to another human, made in the image of God?
Towards the end of the film, Javert – the policeman who has tracked Valjean for 20 years – has his life spared, by none other than Valjean. Javert, who prizes rules and regulations, order and law, cannot believe that where he deserved death, he’s been granted life. Valjean’s action is a complete anathema to Javert (much like Russell Crowe using his Maximus voice in this film is to me). How good am I at receiving acts of mercy, gifts of grace? Do I reject and intellectualise them? Or do I let them sink into my bones and nourish my soul, gratefully drinking in the undeserved favour? Many of us need some practice in admitting our need and receiving from others.
The film ends with the death of Valjean, who’s met by Fantine’s ghost, singing some pseudo-Biblical lyrics such as “come with me, where chains will never bind you” and “to love another person is to see the face of God”. By this stage in proceedings, I was done in. I wasn’t thinking about the terrible representation of women in it (quite literally virgins, mothers or whores) or the problematic elevating of the love story over the political barricade. I was musing on mercy, great huge waves, giant lung bucketfuls. Mercy. How it could revive the Church in the UK, marking it out as exceptional, where all are loved and given multiple chances. Where a perfect God, uses His imperfect children to carry it to others. And from my fondness for Brecht in my undergrad days, I remember that to cry at a performance is not the same as having changed something. I must not mistake my tears for engagement and action with the issues raised, with mercy.
Quite a lot to think about on a Sunday night.
 To get a custodial sentence for such an offence means that it would not have been a first offence, so that is clearly a point of difference between her and Jean Valjean.