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Les Miserables (1998)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

This movie is based on one of the most deservedly well known stories in all of world literature: Victor Hugo’s classic novel of the same name. It is the story of Frenchman Jean Valjean (Liam Neeson, excellent in the role), a thief who steals a loaf of bread and is sentenced to nearly twenty years of hard labor in prison. Hugo’s novel is larger than what can fit into a normal movie, but this film does a very good job in most of its efforts.

The film opens with scattered scenes of life at Toulon prison and follows recently released convict Jean Valjean as he attempts to make a life after his release from jail. He is not accepted by people in the villages through which he travels, until while attempting to sleep on the side of a village street an old woman advises him to ask for help at a particular house. Jean knocks there and finds a Bishop (Peter Vaughan) who feeds him and gives him a bed in which to sleep. Valjean repays the Bishop by robbing him of his silverware and leaving in the night.

The next day the police return Valjean to the Bishop who tells the police that he had given Valjean the silverware and chides Jean for not taking a set of silver candlesticks which he adds to the silver in Valjean’s bag. The Bishop reminds Jean that he had said that he would become a new man and encourages him to keep to that ambition.

Years pass and the story resumes with a new police inspector coming to the town of Vigau. Inspector Javert (Geoffrey Rush) arrives at the police station and meets Captain Beauvais (Reine Brynolfsson), who has a much more relaxed attitude about police work than his new chief. Javert, who had been a guard at Toulon prison while Valjean was there, is told by Capt. Beauvais of the eccentric Mayor of Vigau. The Mayor had started as a worker at the town’s factory, but later bought it and has made it into a very successful business. He did not want to be the Mayor, but was pressed into the job by the other leaders of Vigau. When Javert meets the Mayor he does not realize that the Mayor is Jean Valjean, but Valjean recognizes Javert.

A supervisor at the factory in Vigau discovers that an employee there: Fantine (Uma Thurman) has had a child out of wedlock. While Valjean is rushed because of the arrival of Javert on the scene, he approves of the supervisor’s plan to fire Fantine, which accelerates her downward spiral into illness and prostitution. After she is arrested by Javert, she becomes the center of a disagreement between Valjean and Javert over her treatment, with Valjean favoring mercy and Javert harsh punishment. Through a series of events, Javert suspects the Mayor’s true identity and Jean is again a hunted man.

Jean Valjean’s story is a classic tale of redemption. It contrasts two drastically differing views of human relations. Neither Valjean nor Javert have come from the upper reaches of society, but both have attained some status. Geoffrey Rush’s Javert is a thorough-going establishment-oriented statist, while Neeson’s Valjean, like the Bishop, is a practitioner of voluntary mutual aid. It is difficult to imagine two more extremely opposed views of how society should function.

Whether one believes in a deity, like the Bishop and Valjean, or not, that isn’t the essential characteristic presented in this film of their view of humanity. Although the church figures prominently in Hugo’s stories, kindness and mercy, rather than monotheism, are the essential elements which provide hope and a potential for redemption of individuals in the world. Although this film is not perfect, it is very good with some excellent performances. I think there is much to enjoy and also plenty that can be learned from the classic Les Miserables and this film based on it.

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