Bille August's emotionally affecting screen adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel Les Miserables vividly illustrates the redemptive power of forgiveness and the destructive consequences of self-hate. Screenplay writer Rafael Yglesias has divided the drama into three acts.
In the first, Valjean (Liam Neeson) is released from prison after serving 20 years. An angry and hardened man, he steals silverware from a bishop (Peter Vaughan) who gives him food and a place to sleep. Caught by the police, he is shocked when the bishop refuses to condemn him. "I've ransomed you from fear," the good man tells the thief, "and now I give you back to God." Valjean's life is turned around by this act.
Years later, Valjean is the humble and compassionate mayor of a small town where he also runs a factory. When Javert (Geoffrey Rush), a new police inspector, arrives, he recognizes him as a former convict and sets out to expose him.
In the final act, Valjean escapes to Paris and raises Cosette (Claire Danes), the illegitimate daughter of a women from the factory (Uma Thurman) who died in his home. Having lived in fear of being discovered all of his life, Valjean must let go of Cosette and again face his nemesis Javert.
This inspiring version of the classic story is focused tightly on Valjean and Javert. After the bishop's act of forgiveness re-orchestrates Valjean's life, he plays the music of empathy and compassion toward everyone he meets, including his enemies. Javert, on the other hand, is so filled with self-disgust that he can only find release in hurting others. The contrast between these two lifestyles makes Les Miserables a convincing morality play.