Anne Hathaway as Fantine, her gorgeous hair ripped off, her teeth torn out, and her clothes askew, sings one of the most beautiful songs in musical theater. Yet with each note, the actress articulates the jarring ugliness of her wretched situation.
"When I was young and unafraid, and dreams were held and used, and wasted. There was no ransom to be paid, no song unsung, no wine untasted." Hathaway sings as she sobs, holding words like "unafraid" long and delicate, until she rips into the next phrase, throwing her head down with her hopes on "wasted."
The final line of the song, "now life has killed the dream... I dreamed" briefly summarizes her happy childhood, cut short by the misfortune which leads her to sell her hair, her teeth, and her sexuality.
"He spent a summer by my side," she recalls. "He filled my days with endless wonder." This revealing verse then turns, like the song, to despair: "He took my childhood in his stride! But he was gone when autumn came..."
At this point, Hathaway bites her lip, looks down, and returns to her litany in agony. She dreamed that he'd return, "that we would spend the years together," but "there are dreams that cannot be, and there are storms we cannot weather."
But Fantine's story is not just about despair -- her pain also has deep meaning. Everything she does -- from working in a factory, to selling her hair, her teeth, and -- in utter desperation -- her own body -- raises the money to care for her daughter Cosette. Fantine is, in a very important way, the consummate mother.
But she cannot be a good mother. She cannot live with her daughter, because the shame would make it hard to work and she wouldn't want Cosette to see her in her wretched state.
Before you say this story is unrelatable because Fantine lived in a time of Patriarchy, allow me to ask you a question: are there no abandoning fathers today? Many women -- and sadly, girls -- face Fantine's situation every day. True, large numbers of them turn to abortion -- which was also available in Fantine's time. While sexual activity is encouraged on most college campuses, pregnancy -- and, God forbid, motherhood -- is viewed as a disease.
Like many men today, this man loves Fantine and then deserts her. Without his help, she cannot justify her child, nor work enough to pay the outrageous prices that the inkeepers who house Cosette charge.
She's stuck, and she gives everything for her little girl.
Then comes the escaped convict (who served 19 years hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister's son) become mayor, Jean Val Jean, played by Hugh Jackman. Fantine spits on him, because he was her employer and did not see that she couldn't afford to be kicked out of the factory.
Rather than strike her back or press charges, however, Val Jean asks, "is it true what I've done, to an innocent soul?" Fantine asks him, "God would let me die!" but he retorts, "in his name, my task has just begun."
Carrying her to the hospital, he saves her from the policeman who would have put her in jail. As she lies, dying, Val Jean promises that Cosette "will live in my protection. Your child will lack for nothing."
"Good Monsieur, you come from God in heaven," says the bedraggled mother, who dies with her daughter's name on her lips.
Not only does Val Jean rescue Cosette -- in a winter's snowy night he leads her safe from the well -- but he also frees her from the cheating innkeepers and buys her the doll she has always wanted. He finds her a place to grow up in safety, since he must always run from the law.
Years before, Val Jean had saved a man who had been stuck under his cart. Val jean lifted the cart, which nearly crushed this poor man. Now, Cosette's surrogate father asks this man to house them -- at a convent.
One act of charity enables him to pursue his next good deed -- raising the dead mother's child.
But his greatest sacrifice comes when the little girl becomes a young woman. A boy named Marius, played by Eddie Redmayne, falls in love with her, and she with him. All fine and dandy, right?
Wrong. Marius is a leader in a revolutionary movement, trying to overthrow the king of France. Furthermore, he represents a threat to Val Jean, since he "will take away the flower of my autumn days to be his wife."
Nevertheless, Val Jean puts himself in danger on the barricade. At first, the revolutionaries didn't trust him -- he had to kill a French officer first.
That night, he prays for Marius. Speaking to God, Val Jean says, "You can take, you can give. Let him be, let him live. If I die, let me die, let him live - bring him home."
This wish -- to die to save Marius, a boy he hardly knows, but whom he loves because Cosette loves him, shows Val Jean's true manhood. But what comes next should solidify him in the minds of all young men.
Marius, wounded on the barricade, falls. If he stayed there, he would have died. But Val Jean picks him up and carries him to safety.
He doesn't go around the barricade, or walk out the back door -- there is no back door, and the soldiers are pouring over the barricade, killing every rebel in sight. So Val Jean, laden with an 18-year-old boy, dives into the mud, muck, and human detritus that is the sewers of Paris.
Like all good recent films, Les Miserables hides nothing. Dragging an unconscious young man through the black gore of death and refuse, Val Jean emerges, black as pitch, into the night.
When Marius discovers what Jean Val Jean did for him, he tells Cosette, "your father is a saint."
Considering his actions of love throughout the film, this statement seems merely matter of fact. But better than "saint," another name applies to Val Jean.
Again the words of Marius articulate the character of his savior. Taking up the slack of Fantine's lover and Marius' departed parents, Val Jean clearly deserves the highest praise a man can ever receive.
"We shall call you a father to us both, a father to us all."