Les Miserables is the first film directed by British filmmaker Tom Hooper since he won the best director Oscar for The King's Speech two years ago. This romantic drama is written by William Nicholson and adapted from the popular musical of the same name based on the 1862 French novel by Victor Hugo. The music and songs were written by Claude Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil, and Jean-Marc Natel.

60 Screen Versions

No doubt French poet, dramatist, and novelist Victor Hugo (1802 - 1885) would be stunned to learn that more than 60 screen versions of Les Miserables have been made, and since the French debut of the musical, the English language version (1985) with a new libretto by Herbert Kretzmer ranks as the third-longest running musical in Broadway history.

A Mirror Our Yearnings

Part of the success of Les Miserables as a novel, musical, and film is that it evokes and touches our yearnings for love, freedom, redemption, justice, and forgiveness. There is a built-in audience around the world who have already made the spiritual journey with Jean Valjean and are ready to make it again. Fans of the Broadway show, many of whom have seen it multiple times, are joined by the kind of people who regularly tune into the Emmy Award-winning English television series Downton Abbey for its top-drawer cast and lavish production qualities.

A Tempest of the Heart

Over the years, there have been critics who have put down Hugo's Les Miserables as a work of sentimentality. It is interesting that early in the eighteenth century this term had a positive meaning as something characterized by or showing sentiment or refined feeling. But since then, sentimentality picked up pejorative connotations. such as having too much sentiment. In our times, literary and film critics regularly show their disdain for sentimental works which they put down with adjectives like maudlin, mawkish, bathetic, melodramatic, and drippy. Sadly, some male critics regularly condemn all "chick flicks" and costume dramas as sentimental slop.

The writer Robertson Davies admits being moved to tears by the ending of The Mill on The Floss. After pondering his feelings to see what was going on inside him, he concludes:

"The tempest in the heart that great novels can evoke . . . is an arousal of feelings of wonder at the strangeness of life, and desolation at the implacability of life, and dread of the capriciousness of life which for a few minutes overwhelms all our calculations and certainties and leaves us naked in a turmoil from which cleverness cannot save us. Sentimentality is sometimes used by critics as a term to rebuke artists who seek to sound this terrifying note."

Inner Work on Our Sentiments

Les Miserables touches and moves us deeply with its depiction of this universal experience of the "tempest in the heart." In this review of the film directed by Tom Hooper, we will focus on the main characters, quotations by Victor Hugo, and ideas and values to ponder (indicated with •) after experiencing Les Miserables. We can all do more inner work on our sentiments, and in the process, refine and polish our spiritual character.

1. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman)

Jean Valjean, prisoner 24601, has served a 19-year sentence in a French prison, 10 years for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving sister and her family and 9 more for repeatedly trying to escape. Welcome to the real world of injustice where the poor and the innocent are incarcerated for petty crimes. Now this strong man with a heart of gold is released on parole. But he is required to carry a yellow ticket-of-leave which essentially condemns him to a life of unemployment as an outcast.

To Ponder:
Every human being yearns to be free. How do you feel this in your life? What does your freedom mean to you?

Think of the humiliation and the desperation of those who spent years in prison, who have served their time and presumably paid their debt to society, yet are never given a second chance; they are treated as damaged goods who are still a threat to their communities.

2. The Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson)

This kind and generous Catholic brings a hungry and cold Jean Valjean in off the streets and offers him food and shelter. Seizing a chance to turn his life around, the ex-convict steals the Church's silverware, but he is quickly caught by the police. Instead of condemning Valjean, the Bishop says he gave him the silverware and he offers him absolution: "I've ransomed you from fear and now I give you back to God." Humbled by the Bishop's acts of kindness and mercy, Valjean is astonished at not being judged and being given instead a chance to start his life afresh thanks to the compassion of a loving man of God.

Here we have the first in a series of sentimental moments in this musical. It is rare to see a Catholic priest break all the negative images we have nowadays of clergy as protectors of the institutional church's dogma and authority. The scene where the Bishop lies and grants Valjean the chance to be free is a huge emotional moment which may cause goose-bumps or even a few tears of joy.

To Ponder:
All of us, at one time or another, have been liberated or given a second chance by the surprising kindness or compassion of someone in our lives, whether a stranger or someone we know well. Equally sentimental is the spiritual high we have experienced through our own spontaneous acts of goodness.

  • "To love another person is to see the face of God."
    — Victor Hugo
  • "The word which God has written on the brow of every man is Hope."
    — Victor Hugo
  • "Whether one believes in a religion or not, everyone appreciates kindness and compassion."
    — His Holiness the Dalai Lama
  • "Be kind for everyone is carrying a heavy burden."
    — Ian Maclaren
  • "The life I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or what far place my touch will be felt."
    — Frederick Buechner

3. Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe)

He is a rigid and dogmatic believer in law and order as a stay against the darkness and chaos created by criminals. We first see him at the prison where Jean Valjean is incarcerated; he clearly views this prisoner as a dangerous man. When Valjean breaks his parole, disappearing to start a new life after the Bishop's act of mercy, Javert vows to track him down no matter what it takes. He is convinced that human beings cannot change for the good.

Javert is an archetypal melodramatic character whose obsession with his own ideal of justice makes him into a villain who serves as judge and jury for everyone he meets. Part of this policeman's zeal for bringing Valjean down is the thrill of the chase and the battle of wills which ensues.

To Ponder:
We all have in our minds and memories dogmatic ideas to which we stubbornly cling to as if they were a life raft. But essentially all they really do is drag us down and make it impossible for us to open to the moment or truly be transformed by the love or forgiveness or compassion of another person. What is yours?

  • "There are few catastrophes so great and irremediable as those that follow an excess of zeal."
    — Robert H. Benson
  • "The measure of a man is what he does with power."
    — Pittacus
  • "The worst walls are the ones you put there — you build yourself. Those are the high ones, the thick ones, the ones with no doors."
    — Ursula LeGuin

4. Fantine (Anne Hathaway)

Years later Jean Valjean has assumed a new identity as Monsieur Madeleine; he's the town mayor and owner of its factory. Fantine is a worker in his factory who is sending her pay to a scuzzy inn-keeper (Sasha Baron Cohen) and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) who are looking after Cosette, her eight-year old daughter. After some of the other women in the factory start a fight with her, the supervisor fires Fantine. She quickly sinks into poverty and is forced to sell her hair and to become a prostitute. She is arrested by Javert for an altercation with a client. Valjean, who remembers her from his factory, uses his power as mayor to get her released, even though this means risking being recognized by the policeman.

At the hospital, Fantine tells Valjean about Cosette and he vows to take her under his wing as if she were his own daughter. But she is filled with gratitude when she realizes that Cosette will be saved by Valjean whose gift of love to her is more than she can handle. This is another big sentimental scene in Les Miserables, touching for the generosity of the ex-con and the peace which envelops Fantine after her heart's desire is fulfilled. Both the giving and the receiving are spiritual in nature.

To Ponder:
Fantine reminds us that no one is immune from suffering and some of us endure unimaginable difficulties. Her brief and storm-tossed plunge into poverty, despair, suffering, disease, and death makes her into a Job-like character who struggles with her plight but cannot make sense of it. How do people like her continue to love and hope and dream?

  • "Life is the flower for which love is the honey."
    — Victor Hugo
  • "We say that slavery has vanished from European civilization, but this is not true. Slavery still exists, but now it applies only to women and its name is prostitution."
    — Victor Hugo
  • "A mother's arms are made of tenderness and children sleep soundly in them."
    — Victor Hugo

5. Enjolras (Aaron Tveit)

He is the leader of the Parisian student revolutionaries in 1832 who see a window of opportunity to assert their ideals of equality and help for the poor with the illness and impending death of General Lamarque, a supporter in government of these two causes. Enjolas believes that he and his comrades can rally the people with demonstrations in the streets. When the General dies, they put their plans in action but face the advanced numbers and firepower of the government forces.

The tempo of Les Miserables changes with the arrival of Enjolas and his band of youth who want political change. Now the themes of redemption and revolution are intertwined, and the drama is all the richer for it.

To Ponder:
We all have, at one time or another, identified with the rebel at the barricades — the idealist who sides with the weak, the poor and the powerless; the leader whose courage and tenacity demands respect; and the pioneer who sees the validity of an idea whose time has come. Where specifically are the barricades today?

  • "Conscience is God present in man."
    — Victor Hugo
  • "Close by the Rights of Man, or at least beside them, are the Rights of the Spirit." |— Victor Hugo
  • "All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come."
    — Victor Hugo

6. Marius (Eddie Redmayne)

Marius is a handsome Parisian student who accidentally bumps into Cosette, now a grown-up and very beautiful young woman. He is immediately smitten and the feelings are mutual. But Valjean, who has spotted Javert in the area, has decided that they must move again, and it looks like the lovers will never be together. Marius is part of the student rebellion and is wounded at the barricade. Valjean rescues him and carries him to safety through the sewers of the city.

To Ponder:
Marius is the container for our experiences and memories of first love, another major theme of sentimental movies. He also stands for the youthful idealism which propels us to assume that we can change the world.

  • "Each man should frame life so that at some future hour fact and his dreaming meet."
    — Victor Hugo
  • "Life's greatest happiness is to be convinced we are loved."
    — Victor Hugo

7. Eponine (Samantha Barks)

She is the daughter of the nasty and ethically-challenged couple that had Cosette in their care until Valjean paid them off handsomely. Now she is a waif who has secretly fallen in love with Marius. Eponine is shattered to discover that he is infatuated with Cosette.

Eponine has a major role to play in eventually bringing Marius and Cosette together. Here is another theme from melodramas: the nobility of self-sacrifice for the happiness and well-being of others. Her good deed qualifies her to play a special spiritual role near the end of the drama.

To Ponder:
Eponine is that part of us which is a loyal and dedicated care-giver, the kind of person who gives up her own pleasure in order to help someone else. On the positive side, she can enjoy the helper's high which comes with doing good. On the negative side, she can easily burn out by giving all she's got to others and not taking care of herself. In what ways are you like her?

  • "Curiosity is one of the forms of feminine bravery."
    — Victor Hugo
  • "Do not let it be your aim to be something, but to be someone."
    — Victor Hugo

8. Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone)

This sturdy little street urchin finds a home and meaning for his life with the revolutionaries who take to the barricades. He performs odd jobs and gets caught up in the solidarity of the struggle. Gavroche comes into his own as a brave little soldier.

When the government soldiers attack, this courageous little boy is shot to death trying to collect more cartridges for his comrades. His demise is another signature sentimental moment in Les Miserables: the death of a boy who lays down his life for his friends.

To Ponder:
Gavroche lives inside us as the faith we have in underdogs who against all odds are able to triumph. We love to cheer for these ordinary people whose moments of glory lift our spirits. What Gavroche-like people do you admire?

  • "There is always more misery among the lower classes than there is humanity in the higher."
    — Victor Hugo
  • "Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise."
    — Victor Hugo

9. Cosette (Amanda Seyfried)

Cosette has been raised by Valjean, who has kept his promise to her mother, Fantine. When Marius survives the battle at the barricade, she finds him and they are finally together. Valjean, fearing that Cosette may be in danger because of his past, tells Marius the truth and leaves. Only at the wedding does Marius also realize that Valjean was the one who saved him. He tells Cosette the whole truth and they go looking for her father.

To Ponder:
Cosette is the part of us that is made whole by grace as an unearned and unexpected gift. First, she receives the love and protection of Valjean; then she receives the same from Marius. The whys and wherefores of all this is a mystery to her, which is usually the case with grace. Cosette responds in the only way she can — with total love. When have you experienced grace, and how did you respond?

  • "The power of a glance has been so much abused in love stories, that it has come to be disbelieved in. Few people dare now to say that two beings have fallen in love because they have looked at each other. Yet it is in this way that love begins, and in this way only."
    — Victor Hugo
  • "When love has fused and mingled two beings in a sacred and angelic unity, the secret of life has been discovered so far as they are concerned; they are no longer anything more than the two boundaries of the same destiny; they are no longer anything but the two wings of the same spirit. Love, soar."
    — Victor Hugo

10. Jean Valjean

Les Miserables delivers a powerful advocacy of forgiveness over revenge. After he is arrested and forgiven by the priest, Valjean is set on a new path where he eventually forgives Javert who has tormented and hated him for years. Instead of taking the policeman's life, he gives him the great gift of freedom. And in the highly emotional closing scenes of the film, Valjean is released from the past and embraced in a circle of love.

To Ponder:
Forgiveness is an invitation to start over again, to wipe the slate clean. The sentimental scenes in Les Miserables usually include an act of forgiveness. In a time when bravery in movies is usually marked by the violence of soldiers, it is refreshing to see a movie that confirms what is said in the Bhagavad Gita: "If you want to see the brave, look at those who can forgive. If you want to see the heroic, look at those who can love in return for hatred." Identify some brave and heroic people in our time.

Don't be ashamed of the tears you shed during the closing scenes of Les Miserables. Know that you are in the company of millions around the world who have shared your sentimental feelings.

  • "Tears are a sign that God has touched the emotive center of our lives."
    — Richard Foster
  • "There is a sacredness in tears. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues.
    — Washington Irving

Special features on the BluRay/DVD combo include: the stars of Les Miserables; creating the perfect Paris; the original masterwork: Victor Hugo's Les Miserables; a feature commentary with director Tom Hooper; Les Miserables singing live; the battle at the barricade; the West End connection; and Les Miserables on location.