Les Misérables ~ A Capsule Movie Review By Allen Kopp
I have never seen the stage version of the musical Les Misérables, so I don’t have a lot of basis for comparison, but I think the movie version works very well. It has everything I want in a movie and more. It is a complete escape from reality; I haven’t ever seen anything like it before; it’s a touching story about redemption; the characters are nothing like any real people I know; it’s beautiful to look at. Most of the dialogue is sung by actors who don’t usually sing in the movies they’re in, and there are at least two very memorable songs (“I Dreamed a Dream” and “Bring Him Home). It is, of course, based on a classic of world literature, Victor Hugo’s massive 1862 novel of the same name, which has never been out of print in 150 years.
Les Misérables is set in France during the turbulent years of 1815 to 1832, the time it takes for a small girl to become an adult. It is about a man, the fictional character Jean Valjean, who is utterly lost but finds redemption through an act of kindness directed toward him. He has served “nineteen winters” in a brutal prison for petty theft. (He stole a loaf of bread because he and his family were starving.) He is granted conditional parole but escapes. He finds refuge in a convent, where nuns and a kindly priest care for him. One night when everybody is asleep he steals some silver plates and flees. When he is captured by the police, he tells them the priest gave him the items he has stolen. The police take him to the convent to confront the priest, who tells them that Jean Valjean was welcome to take the things he stole and gives him a pair of elaborate candlesticks to go with them. This is the act of kindness that changes Jean Valjean’s life.
He “turns away from hatred,” regains his health after the terrible conditions in prison, and “turns his life over to God.” (After that, his life is as directed by God.) He becomes a successful businessman, owning and operating a factory that employs women, specifically a young woman named Fantine, who will play a significant part in his life. Fantine is unjustly fired from the factory (unknown to Jean) and has to turn to prostitution to support her small child, whose name is Cosette. (One of the highlights of the movie is when Fantine [played by Anne Hathaway] sings “I Dreamed a Dream.”) When Jean discovers what has happened to Fantine, she is dying. He promises her that he will take care of her daughter—that she will never want for anything as long as he lives.
In the meantime, Jean Valjean’s past catches up with him. He meets again, by chance, Inspector Javert (played by Russell Crowe), who recognizes him from his prison days and knows that he skipped out on his parole. Javert believes he is duty-bound to send Jean back to prison, in spite of the smallness of his crime and the twenty years he has already spent behind bars.
In the coming years, Javert continues to obsessively pursue Jean Valjean, who always manages to stay just one step ahead of him. Meanwhile, Cosette has grown to adulthood and lives with Jean Valjean as his daughter. She has fallen in love with a young leader of the “June Rebellion” named Marius. Through a twist of fate, Jean is able to save Marius’s life. Through another twist, he spares the life of Javert when he is given the chance to exact revenge and kill him.
If you are tired of the banal “romantic comedies,” sequels, franchises such as James Bond and Spiderman, animated 3D movies for the under-six set, action-adventure movies, and the mindless drivel that passes these days for entertainment, don’t miss Les Misérables. Movies like this one don’t come along very often.
Copyright © 2012 by Allen Kopp