Jean Valjean (Frederick March) steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister's children and is sent to prison for ten years. Prison degrades him and he completes his term a broken and, possibly insane, man. While in prison, one of the guards, Javert (Charles Laughton), takes note of Val jean's remarkable strength. Javert is more obviously unstable - he is obsessed with the rigid enforcement of the law, in denial of his past (his parents were criminals. Confused, depressed, and very fearful, Valjean ventures into his parole with questionable intentions. But he is soon taken in by a very kindly Bishop who bends the truth in order to protect Jean from himself and the police. Explaining himself, the priest tells Jean that 'Life is to give, not to take'. This single act, and the priest's words, set Valjean upon a path of service and honor which requires him to reinvent himself. In Act 2, we meet him in the person of Mssr. Madeline, a successful and well-loved businessman who is being asked to run for mayor in the small town he has done so much for. Complicating matters, Javert has been appointed to head the local constabulary.
Through all three parts of this epic story, Valjean is pursued by his former captor, whether by circumstance or obsessive intent. This is the central conflict of the story, but the depth and elements of the conflict truly hinge upon a non-participant third-party. Valjean/Madeline meets Cosette, a good-hearted but more-or-less orphan child whose plight reminds him of his sister's children and deeply touches his heart. He reunites Cosette and her mother, giving them both a good home for the mother's final weeks. After she passes, he essentially adopts Cosette. The love that develops between Cosette and Jean, that of a father and daughter, saves them both. Perhaps this love will eventually save the incorrigible and obsessed Javert.
Les Miserables is written with extremely powerful characterization, from a deeply Catholic/Christian perspective, though it is not an evangelical work. Although none of the characters are stereotypes, archetypes, or caricatures, the central conflict is not one of men, but rather one of faith. Javert perfectly represents faith in the laws of men, the Bishop reflects the laws of his god, and Valjean must resolve the inevitable conflicts between the two both internally and externally. The ethics of Les Miserables is, in contrast to the opinion of one popular review, far from 'situational.' It would be much better described as 'subtle', complex, and very carefully considered. The simple message is that law is no substitute for justice.
Victor Hugo's Les Miserables is probably my favorite novel of all time. While leaving whole episodes of this massive tome out, the unfortunately short-lived Richard Boleslawski's 1935 film captures more than just the essence and spirit of the book and is not a Reader's Digest condensation or a "Cliff Notes" version. The W.P. Lipscomb script is perfectly economical and Boleslawski wisely relied on Gregg Tolland's spectacular camera work to tell more of the story than the dialog. Despite the difficulty of distilling a 1000+ page, relatively dense French novel into a film of slightly over 1.5 hours, the director made the camera responsible for conveying a great deal of information about the story and the characters . The casting is also quite perfect. March and Laughton are tremendous in what may be the apex of their collaborative efforts. I was also impressed by the performances in a few of the minor roles - Cedric Hardwicke (the Bishop) and Frances Drake (Eponine) especially.
All considered, this film should appeal to those who appreciate mature, intelligent, morality plays spiced up with a bit of adventure, and those who are looking for a good film version of the classic novel.
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