When it opens in theaters on Christmas Day, Les Misérables will evoke laughter, tears and applause from audiences while presenting a message of forgiveness and love that is desperately needed in our world.
Over two-and-a-half hours in length, the film is a faithful adaptation of the musical based on Victor Hugo’s acclaimed 19th century novel.
It stars Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, a French man who spends 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child. When he is finally released, he has become a hardened, bitter man, swearing he will never forgive those who have harmed him. Driven out of society because of his criminal status, he is ridiculed and unable to find work.
Valjean steals the silver of a benevolent bishop who is kind enough to offer him food and shelter. But when he is caught and threatened with a return to prison, the bishop defends him, saying that the silver was a gift freely given, while later telling Valjean that he must use it to “become an honest man.”
This undeserved mercy shown by the bishop transforms Valjean. In a powerful conversion scene, he kneels before an altar, wrestling with his hatred for the world and the newfound forgiveness he has experienced, and eventually allowing the power of this mercy to make him a new man.
Years later, Valjean – now a respected mayor – finds that he inadvertently allowed a woman working in his factory to be cast out, forcing her into a life of prostitution. As she lays dying, he vows to care for her daughter, Cosette. He raises the girl, who comes of age during a period of social unrest in France, all the while running from his past crime.
In contrast to Valjean stands police inspector Javert, perhaps the most intriguing character in the story. Although he is the antagonist, he is not an embodiment of evil, but rather a personification of what happens when justice is completely divorced from mercy.
Javert is best summarized by his declaration, “I am the law, and the law is not mocked.” Obsessed with enforcing the law, he becomes consumed with the hunt for Valjean, who has broken his parole in leaving behind his tainted criminal identity.
Rather than the greed and self-interest that is often seen in modern villains, Javert’s commitment to justice leads him to willingly accept the possibility of punishment when he thinks he has mistakenly reported the wrong man. He believes that he is serving God by strictly enforcing the law and prays that he may find Valjean so that justice may be served.
However, this blind worship of justice renders Javert incapable of forgiving Valjean, whom he can only see as a fugitive “fallen from God, fallen from grace.” It is impossible for him to grasp the idea that Valjean may ever be able to change from his thieving ways.
When a twist of fate leaves his life in Valjean’s hands and the former convict frees him rather than killing him, the look on his face makes it clear that he cannot understand forgiveness, and he vows to continue hunting Valjean.
In their final confrontation, Javert is puzzled by his inability to pull the trigger on Valjean. Haunted by the forgiveness he was earlier shown, his failure to comprehend mercy ultimately leads to his ruin, a tragic depiction of the consequences of justice untempered by mercy.
Éponine is another fascinating character and a moving example of how real love demands self-sacrifice. The daughter of the unscrupulous innkeepers that provide the story’s comic relief, she falls in love with the young revolutionary Marius. When she discovers that his heart belongs to Cosette, she is devastated.
The key moment comes, however, when Éponine witnesses a gang preparing to attack the house where Cosette and Valjean are hiding. If she remains silent, Cosette may be taken away or even killed, and she may have a chance to win Marius. But despite the evident pain of her unrequited love, she chooses valor over vengeance, saving Cosette and Valjean by screaming to alert them.
Éponine later disguises herself as a young man to join Marius at the barricade, where she saves his life in a courageous display of sacrificial love. Although a minor character, her role is both heroic and deeply touching.
Anne Hathaway also delivers a tear-jerking performance in the role of Fantine, the factory worker who is cast out when her supervisor discovers the existence of her young daughter, Cosette. Desperate to support her child, she sells her belongings, hair and even teeth before being driven into prostitution.
Hathaway’s skeletal appearance is startling, albeit fitting for the role. Her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is absolutely chilling, as is the look in her eyes when Valjean promises that he will care for her child.
With palpable emotion from Valjean’s first paternal smile at Cosette to the final desperate battle at the barricade, Les Misérables delivers a powerful message of mercy and love.
Rated PG-13, the film deals with heavy themes including prostitution and the violent death of children, but it largely avoids graphic and gratuitous depictions, instead choosing more tastefully to show glimpses of these atrocities, which are enough to convey an idea of their horror.
Featuring an all-star cast including Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried and Helena Bonham Carter, the movie is sure to be a hit at the box office. It is a refreshing change from so many of the shallow films coming out of Hollywood.
With dazzling performances, bold visuals and heartfelt renditions of beloved songs, Les Misérables can be a tool for evangelization, telling a story of redemption and grace that is much-needed in the modern world and pointing to the ultimate discovery that “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.