Les Miserables: Film Review
Les Miserables is a complex, transformative story of Jean Valjean and the people that intersect with him during his life. The film opens with Valjean in prison after stealing a loaf of bread for his poor sister’s children. After 19 years of hard labor he is released but must carry papers with him at all times indicating his prison record. The papers brand Valjean as a criminal and make it difficult for him to find work or dignity. He becomes increasingly bitter, hopeless and hungry. One night a bishop finds Valjean shivering in the cold and takes him to his parsonage, where he feeds him and gives him a place to sleep. In the night, Valjean steals some silver from the bishop and leaves. He is caught and the police take him to confront the bishop. The bishop denies that Valjean stole anything. In fact, the bishop gives him even more silver before sending him on his way. This incident incites Valjean to turn his life around. He tears up his prison papers, and creates a new life for himself, eventually becoming a wealthy businessman and mayor of a town.
An employee in one of Valjean’s factories is a young woman named Fantine. She works to provide for her child since the father abandoned them. Fantine is fired after refusing the advances of her supervisor and ultimately resorts to prostitution to care for her daughter. After an officer accuses Fantine of attacking him, Valjean intercedes and promises to care for Fantine’s child, Cosette.
Javert, an inspector who knew Valjean when he was in prison, discovers that he has assumed a fake identity and is determined to hunt Valjean and return him to prison. Valjean finds a job as a gardener in a convent and raises Cosette there.
An uprising against the government brings Javert to Paris where he is caught by young revolutionaries. Valjean finds him; but instead of killing him, Valjean frees Javert.
Meanwhile, Cosette falls in love with Marius, one of the revolutionaries. After being shot and nearly killed, Valjean rescues Marius by hiding him in the sewers. Marius and Cosette get married. Valjean becomes sick and eventually dies, but not before first revealing his past to Cosette and Marius.
The story of Les Miserables is interwoven with obvious spiritual themes. Following are some of the significant themes that resonated with me:
1. Redemption. Valjean is redeemed several times, most notably by the bishop and Fauchelevent, who was rescued from death by Valjean earlier in the story. Cosette is saved from the cruel Thénardier family by Valjean. After growing up poor and in hiding, she is again redeemed through her marriage to Marius, who comes from a wealthy family.
2. Sacrifice. Valjean sacrifices himself in many ways in the story. For example, he gives up his freedom, position and wealth by revealing his identity to Javert. Valjean risks his health and life to save Marius from death. He also sacrificially gives away Cosette to Marius in marriage, despite his paternal feelings for Cosette.
3. Mercy. This is arguably the overarching theme in Les Miserables. Valjean shows mercy to Fantine and her daughter, Cosette, by paying to adopt her as his child. It is through mercy that Cosette and Marius forgive Valjean for his troubled past. However, not everyone in Les Miserables fathoms the idea of love and mercy. In a supreme act of mercy, Valjean frees Javert when he could have just as easily killed him. Javert is perplexed and, as an act of rebellion, commits suicide. The story concludes with people singing, “To love another person is to see the face of God”, which is Les Miserables in a nutshell.
The story of Les Miserables transcends time. Its messages are as relevant and compelling today as they were in the 19th century.
We have all struggled with failure and hopelessness. We have faced persecution and injustice. But all is not lost. When we are weak and helpless like Valjean, God shows us a way out. Through God’s mercy and love, he redeems us and gives us a new hope.