“Look down, look down. Don’t look ‘em in the eye. Look down, look down, you’re here until you die.” Chained men, some in knee-deep water, pull thick chains as the large ship is brought into port under the watchful eye of Inspector Javert (Russell Crow). After the daunting job is finished, the convicts march out, with Javert singling out prisoner 24601. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), begins his first discourse with Javert, who will spend the rest of his life chasing Valjean down for stealing a loaf of bread.
While on parole, Valjean makes his escape and begins a new life. He employs women in a factory, which is where we meet Fantine (Anne Hathaway). The manager throws Fantine out onto the streets after she refuses his advances, and he learns from the jealous workers that she works to pay for her child. Forced into life as a prostitute, she becomes extremely ill, and in an act of fate, Valjean rescues her from being arrested after she defends herself against a rough “gentleman.”
Fantine tells him of her child and discloses that due to his lack of concern over his manager’s cruelty, she was compelled into this life to make the payments to the couple who were caring for her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen and Amanda Seyfried). Overwhelmed by his own injustice and filled with the need to rectify his mistake, Valjean makes a deathbed promise to find Cosette and care for her. He sees this as God’s way of letting his life mean something.
He finds the child working as a slave for the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) at their tavern. In contrast to Cosette’s meager existence, their own daughter, Éponine, lives as the little princess. The Thénardiers are con artists, gypping their customers and stealing anything they can wrap their slippery fingers around. Valjean “purchases” Cosette’s freedom, and adopts her.
Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean and Isabelle Allen as young Cosette in Les Miserables; Photo Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Valjean’s troubles are not over, as Javert recognizes Valjean, but admits his mistake when another man is caught and is on trial for Valjean’s parole violation. Valjean struggles with giving up everything he has worked for and admitting his guilt, or letting another man take his place in the galleys.
A second storyline takes place with the Friends of the ABC. The rumblings of unrest among France’s people become outright rebellion when General Lamarque dies. The students set up barricades in the center of France in hopes the townspeople will join them in their cause. One of the leaders, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), is Cosette’s true love, and is unknowingly in a love triangle with Éponine loving him from afar.
Les Misérables is a story of redemption, mercy, forgiveness, legalism, heartbreak, and hope. Is Valjean ever free from his sin of stealing bread to feed his starving family? Will Javert ever stop searching for him? Can Valjean’s saving of Cosette from the Thénardiers make up for his part in her mother’s death? Will Marius ever notice Éponine, or will Cosette be the only woman he has eyes for? What will happen to the students who set up the barricade in Paris’ epicenter? Does God care what happens to these wretched souls?
The singing and acting is beyond superb—the film won the Best Sound Mixing Award at the Academy Awards. Adding to the incredible storyline is director Tom Hooper’s extraordinary vision, which allowed the cast to sing live, accompanied by an on-set piano, instead of pre-filming the songs and lip-syncing afterwards. He says:
“I just felt ultimately, it was a more natural way of doing it. . .If they [actors] need a bit for an emotion or a feeling to form in the eyes before they sing, I can take that time. If they cry, they can cry through a song. When you’re doing it to playback, to the millisecond you have to copy what you do. You have no freedom in the moment – and acting is the illusion of being free in the moment.”
Amanda Seyfried as Cosette and Eddie Redmayne as Marius in Les Miserables; Photo Courtesy of Universal Pictures
That freedom stirs emotions as the actors are lost in the in their performance. Their voices resonate in your soul, and from the opening scene to closing chorus, every word will be etched in your soul. The agony on Hathaway’s face (Fantine) during her famous hair-cutting scene is enough to bring tears to your own eyes.
In order to create an authentic rendition of Fantine selling her locks for money to pay for her daughter after being fired from her job at a factory, her beautiful hair is hacked onscreen with a razor blade attached to a knife.
According to the actress who cut her hair, Hathaway did have to stop for a moment, and burst into tears when she felt the front. This authenticity shone through, and at the Academy Awards, an extremely deserving Anne Hathaway won Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
Rebellion, theft, mercy, prostitution, thievery, death…
Welcome to Paris in the early 1800s. Welcome to Les Misérables.
Isabelle Allen as young Cosette in Les Miserables; Photo Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Les Misérables is an exceptional movie in regards to how people perceive God. Cruel realities of a man imprisoned in a seemingly unfair lengthy sentence for a pitiful crime and a woman forced into prostitution to pay for her child’s welfare help us empathize with the characters. We can’t help but wonder what we would do in the same situations.
Fantine sells her teeth and hair to earn money, and this troubles your soul as you hurt for what she is willing to sacrifice. The prostitution section isn’t as graphic as you would expect when it comes to the physical act, although you see a man get on top of her. What’s more disturbing is the change in Fantine’s eyes as her virtue is sold for gold coins.
As far as any other disturbing scenes, the Thénardiers cheat and steal, and in one quick shocking scene, Helena Bonham Carter is seen straddling one of the patrons in a sex act, fully clothed, with her husband underneath the table as she pickpockets the man. The rest of the movie is worth watching if you choose to cover your eyes, or the eyes of your teen, during their major song number.
The rich themes and subthemes in Les Misérables leave room for countless discussions on a myriad of Biblical themes.
For instance, when Valjean is released on parole, he is mistreated by everyone he comes into contact with— cheated of wages, teased by children, and refused food even though he can pay for it. Resigned to spending a cold night outdoors, an old woman suggests he try a certain door. He is welcomed by the priest and treated like a special guest.
Despite the priest’s kindness, Valjean steals the priest’s silver, but is caught and brought back to face the priest. However, the priest tells the police that he had given Valjean the silver. He then turns to Valjean, and in an incredible act of mercy, tells Valjean that he forgot the candlesticks. After the police leave, the priest says to Valjean, “I have bought your soul for God.”
This moment creates a spiritual crisis for Valjean, which he expresses in song as he struggles to understand why the priest responds in forgiveness after he’d been stolen from. He determines he will no longer be Jean Valjean the convict.
Contrast this with Valjean’s dealings with Javert, who even after Valjean spares his life, still cannot reconcile the past crimes he committed with the man he has become. Both men have a sense of duty, one seeing his obligation to society to remove a criminal off the streets, and the other with an obligation to keep a promise to a dying woman.
Why are some people able to go above and beyond the limits of mercy and grace like the priest, but others like Javert wrap indiscretion in the boundaries of justice and legalism?
James 2:24 says, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Does Valjean atone for his sin of stealing bread by his good acts? Why or why not? Do the ends justify the means?
Why do you think Javert can’t accept the concepts of grace and mercy? “For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). If Javert had followed this verse, how would the story between the two men have changed? Is there anyone in your life that you hold in the same regard as Javert held Valjean?
Click here to watch the Official movie trailer for Les Miserables
To learn more about the author, FL Christian Writers’ Conference, 2012 Writer of the Year visit www.BethanyJett.com
To get more details about Les Miserables visit Christian Film Database
Check out Bethany’s new book, The Cinderella Rule releasing spring 2013 with Regal Publishing! Available for pre-order!