Les Misérables (1998) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • Jean Valjean, a Frenchman imprisoned for stealing bread, must flee a police officer named Javert. The pursuit consumes both men's lives, and soon Valjean finds himself in the midst of the student revolutions in France.

  • Released on parole from prison, where he was sent for stealing bread for his starving relatives Jean Valjean attempts to rob a saintly bishop who has befriended him but when the bishop declines to turn him in and gifts him his silverware Jean swears to do only good, selling the silverware to finance a factory in a small town of which he has become mayor. When one of the factory workers, the down-trodden Fantine, dies Jean adopts her daughter Cosette, taking her to Paris as his own child. Here she meets and falls in love with Marius, a young student, part of the June rebellion of 1832. But Marius's political stance puts him in danger and Jean is being relentlessly pursued by policeman Javert, who recognizes him and wants to bring him down.

  • Valjean, a former criminal, has atoned for his past and now finds himself in the midst of the French Revolution, avoiding a law-obsessed policeman hell-bent on capturing him.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • The main character is Jean Valjean (Liam Neeson), a Frenchman imprisoned for 20 years for stealing bread. He responds to the understanding and kindness of a Bishop, and becomes a successful business man and Mayor of a small town. Uma Thurman plays the roll of a single parent, Fantine, fighting to bring up her daughter Cosette. She works in Valjean's factory, sending money to keep her daughter with a couple in another town, until her secret is discovered, and she is dismissed, in order to prevent her bad moral influence impacting on the rest of the workforce. Thus begins her descent into poverty, prostitution, illness and death. During this time the main theme of the film develops, the conflict between Valjean, and the police officer named Javert. He recognises Valjean from his time as a prison guard. He oscillate between recognition and doubt, (given Valjean's now elevated position), until a trial of some other convict mistaken for Valjean, forces the later to declare his true identity , and flee from his past. This situation coincides with Fantine's demise, and Valjean decides to collect the young Cosette from her less than ideal fostering. They take refuge in a convent in Paris, and stay in hiding there from Javert until Cosette has grown into a young woman (now played by Clare Daynes - of leading lady in Homeland fame). We now enter the final phase of the film, centred on the Republican inspired uprising in Paris of June 5-6 1832. Cosette falls in love with one of the students organising the uprising, and this brings Valjean back into the clutches of Javert. During the uprising, Valjean has the opportunity to kill Javert, but believes he doesn't have right to. Javert says he will not stop pursuing Valjean, and advises him to kill him. Of course, shortly afterward, the situations are reversed, and again the moral impasse prevails. Javert has always tried to do the right thing throughout his life, and faced with Valjean's goodness, takes his own life by drowning himself in the River Seine, (within sight of the cathedral of Notre Dame). The film provides an insight into the type of moralistic tales of that time, trying to portray the suffering and degradation inherent in poverty, and the personal conflicts that are intertwined into that framework, in order to illustrate the particular challenges and choices that therein abound. It reflects the longing for the re-instatement of a French Republic, and attempts to publicise the suffering of the poor that is blamed on the inadequacies of the rule of Napoleon III. It gives a passable, if uninspired, portrayal of the main intent of the novel(written by Victor Hugo during the 2nd Empire in 1862), and has the added bonus that it is not being a musical!

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