Classic drama demonstrates we don’t have to be chained to our past, writes Sarah Olowofoyeku
FRANCE is defeated. After 20 years Napoleon and his troops have lost the war. The revolution was unsuccessful and there will be a return to the old way. In Paris the divide between rich and poor is gaping, and the poorest people are the ones who suffer most. Their stories are being told in a new adaption of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables.
One such story is that of Jean Valjean (Dominic West). He is a reformed thief who runs a factory and a town with integrity, compassion and kindness. He does so under a new name. But he has been found by his former prison officer, Javert (David Oyelowo), who threatens to bring up his criminal past.
Viewers have seen Jean Valjean go through highs and lows. When he was in prison he, along with his fellow convicts, was badly mistreated by prison officers. But he retained his humanity and a sense of justice. After knocking down a boulder to crush an abusive guard, he then saved him.
When Jean was released from prison, after serving 19 years, he was shown an undeserved act of kindness by a bishop (Derek Jacobi). Jean stole silverware from the bishop, but when he was caught by the police, the churchman pretended that he had given it to Jean. The police let him go, and the bishop said to Jean: ‘You do not belong to evil any more, you belong to good.’
Because of the bishop’s kindness, Jean chose to change and show kindness to others. But when Javert found him, he still believed that Jean should be doing time for what he had done in the past.
The bishop and Javert have different views on people’s ability to change. The bishop believes that everyone deserves a second chance and has the capacity to be good, but Javert is firm in his conviction that some people are inherently bad and deserve punishment, without hope of redemption.
David Oyelowo says that the character he plays ‘represents retribution and an Old Testament way of looking at the world. He doesn’t believe people are redeemable.’ On the other hand, he says, ‘Valjean represents grace, redemption and seeking forgiveness’.
Those three concepts are something that David, and other Christians like him, recognise as being offered to us because of Jesus.
Through Jesus, prisoners and prison officers can receive grace, find forgiveness and experience redemption. The Bible says: ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned’ (John 3:17, 18 New International Version).
Some of us have been condemned by others, while some have been the ones who have condemned. But the good news is that, no matter which group of people we find ourselves in, grace, redemption and forgiveness can be part of our own stories.
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