Les Miserables is the Story of Grace and Redemption We Need

Librarian’s Pick
Les Miserables (2012 film)
Available on DVD at Aitkin Library

Victor Hugo authored Les Miserables in 1862. It achieved perfection 120 years later as a London musical production with music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. Tom Hooper brought it to the big screen in 2012. The epic tale of the downtrodden in post revolutionary France combines music, acting, and drama to achieve storytelling perfection. The archetypal characters, moral dilemmas, and sweeping melodies capture the highs and lows of the human condition and urge us to ponder unanswerable questions. 

In the Prologue, prison chants set the tone. Jean Valjean is serving 19 years as Prisoner 24601 for stealing a loaf of bread. His antagonist, the unforgiving prison guard Javert, issues Valjean his yellow ticket of leave but warns him that he will starve again unless he learns the meaning of the law.

Resorting to a life of crime, Valjean appears to be doomed to a life back under the lash and upon the rack until an act of grace by the saintly Bishop of Digne inspires him. By the witness of the martyrs and the passion of the blood, he has bought Valjean’s soul for God. The next time we see him in act one, he’ll have a new identity as the Mayor of Montreul.

“At the End of the Day” we meet little Fantine working in the Mayor’s factory. Through the singsong taunts of her vindictive coworkers, we learn she has an illegitimate child, the darling Cosette. Conspiring with the lecherous foreman, these 19th century Mean Girls push Fantine into the street. 

Our hearts break with her as she sings, “I Dreamed a Dream.” Anne Hathaway demonstrates how to win an Oscar in 4 minutes. With her big sad eyes and perfect face, she sings through her sobs like a fallen angel. It only gets worse for Fantine in “Lovely Ladies” where she sells her jewelry, hair, teeth and eventually her body and soul; ten francs may save her poor Cosette. 

Meanwhile, Inspector Javert is suspicious that the Mayor is the long lost parolee Valjean but he apprehends someone else in a case of mistaken identity. We find the Mayor having a crisis of conscience in “Who am I?”  If he speaks, he is condemned but if he stays silent, he is damned. While he tries to justify his silence to himself, he remembers the bargain he made with God. The music swells and we can feel the power of the holy spirit pumping through his veins and into his heart as he defiantly confesses to Javert that he is indeed Jean Valjean, the lost prisoner two.. four.. six.. oh.. ooooonnnne. He resolves his bargain with God and his identity with that high 8 beat G#. 

After a chaotic showdown with Javert, he redeems himself for his inability to protect Fantine and pledges to her that Cosette will want for nothing. We finally get a little comic relief when we meet the delightfully wicked Thenardiers who have been “caring” for her. The innkeepers and “Master of the House” who will charge ‘em for the lice, extra for the mice, two percent for lookin’ in the mirror twice.

In act two, Valjean and Cosette have started over in Paris and Cosette is now a young woman. She catches the eye of the student rebel Marius who finds love to be a tempting substitute for revolutionary zeal. “Red and Black” used to represent the blood of angry men and the dark of ages past but now, they’re the color of desire and the world if she’s not there. Ultimately, Marious can’t abandon his cause and “Do You Hear the People Sing” has the beating of our hearts echoing the beating of the drums as we march towards revolution with the young idealists.

In a heart wrenching sleight of hand, we discover the purest love is not the love Marius and Cosette have for each other or even Marius’s love for his doomed uprising. It’s young Eponine’s unrequited love for Marius. Her realization when she sings “On my Own” that Marius is blind to her love does not turn her bitter. Instead, her selfless actions reaffirm that true love doesn’t demand rewards. It is the reward.

The stories of Valjean, Javert, and the revolutionaries and the girls who love them converge on the streets of Paris. Hugo and Kretzmer tie these loose ends in a satisfying knot that sticks in our throats. Les Miz doesn’t give us the payoff we expect but the bittersweet one we need. It reminds us that grace and redemption exist and those moments of light will have us thanking the darkness for making them possible. 

Posted in Reviews.