The movie takes place as if unfolding in five acts. Act one, the criminal serves time. Act two, the criminal is set free, and given stolen silver by the merciful and saintly bishop who puts him up for the night. Act three Valjean is a factory owner and mayor, well respected in a town far away from Paris. Here he meets Fantine who is unjustly cast out of his factory. Valjean (now known as monsieur le maire) tries to correct the wrong by offering protection for Fantine’s daughter, Cosette.
Act four Valjean must again change identities to escape the clutches of Javert, a fanatical lawman who is determined to lock up Valjean again. He and Cosette live in a cloistered convent, safe and holy. Here is where Cosette falls in love with one of the revolutionaries (Valjean is not the only one suffering from injustice and hunger) and Valjean learns that the young man is worth saving.
Act five is the final escape through the sewers of the city of Paris as Javert continues to chase after the former convict. The movie like the book is a weeper. There are scenes of grave injustice hard to bear. Then there is the rallying cry of the group determined to cast down the oppressors, and a musical number that soars and sends goose bumps down my spine.
Every time I was moved to tears, it had to do with Hugh Jackman singing and acting his heart out. The movie is largely Jackman’s because he plays Jean Valjean. Jean Valjean served 19 years in prison doing very hard labor (shown in baffling close up by the filmmaker) for stealing a bit of bread to feed his family. Victor Hugo’s novel describes the injustice of law enforcement in the person of Javert, the bloodhound on Valjean’s trail once Valjean changes his identity to avoid having to go to probation hearings for the rest of his life.
Just when the action becomes too solemn, Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter show up as a couple of dishonest innkeepers singing “Master of the House.” They provide welcome comic relief throughout the movie. Some of the lesser parts are beautifully played, especially Eponine who loves in vain and does a noble thing or two, and Marius whose singing about survivor guilt is very beautiful.
The other night Les Miserables was on TCM, the version with Charles Laughton as Javert and Frederic March as Valjean. I was amazed at how much more quickly the story was told without music, but how the power of the conflict was the same.
In the new movie, the music may be mostly schlocky, the story may tilt toward melodrama and thrust Christ imagery around, many characters may lack complexity, the director may not be able to resist pulling away from a shot in a helicopter, but still I wept when Hugh Jackman was singing in the carriage having whisked Cosette away from Javert and discovering the joys of being a father.
Bold heroism is in short supply lately. Jean Valjean is so noble and spiritually holy you think you can resist him. I for one could not.