I saw Les Miserables again this weekend. I saw it over Christmas when it was first released. Try though I did, I couldn't keep myself from crying toward the end. The whole movie was just desperately depressing.
Certainly Fantine's character is tragic. While Anne Hathaway's rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" is powerful, her story isn't the one that leaves me most sad.
While many will vilify Javert for the role he plays in his ever persistent hunt for Jean Valjean, I feel incredibly sorry for him. He is a man who has spent his entire very carefully constructing an understanding of who he is. Javert clings to his identity with a desperation born of shame at his roots. In the end, when he commits a single act (an act of mercy no less) that is contrary to his understanding of his identity, he is unable to reconcile the two.
Javert finds himself incapable of change. He is unwilling to accept that his actions were, in a moment, at odds with the identity he had so carefully crafted. Without any hope of holding these two things in tension, Javert commits suicide. How horribly sad that he should spend the whole of his life convinced he is pursuing good, only to do one truly good thing, and to be unable to reconcile an act of mercy with his understanding of what it means to be and do good.
And Jean Valjean himself, saved by an act of mercy, a priest who could have charged him with theft and returned him to prison, instead claims Valjean for God. This priest invites Valjean into the sanctifying love of God, and calls upon him to become an honest man who serves God.
Valjean dedicates himself to doing good. He treats people with kindness and respect. Thinking of others before himself, he saves a man's life, though doing so may well condemn him. He raises an orphaned child as his own.
But Valjean is constantly aware of his precarious position. He is constantly aware that he is a single step ahead of Javert. And while there is much singing, this is no silly dance as found in Aladdin. Valjean hides his past from those in his employ, as he must. He hides his past from those in society, as he must.
But until his dying day, Valjean hides his past from everyone, including his own (adopted) child. He runs from the shame of what he once was. He fears that should Cosette ever find out that he was once branded a thief she herself would be ashamed.
A man who dedicated his life to the service of others, who learned to love by taking into his care a vulnerable child with no one else to love her, is unknown by all who enter his life.
Pegged a criminal by Javert, his redemption is unseen.
Beloved by Cosette, he hides his past from her, and his redemption remains unseen.
Valjean dies without ever knowing the intimacy of being known completely by another person, and being found worthy, and being deeply loved.
This, to me, is the saddest part of the whole movie. He dies in the presence of his daughter and new son-in-law, escorted to heaven in the gracious presence of Fantine. But in so many ways, he seems so alone and unknown in his death. I cannot think of anything more tragic.
Though I truly enjoyed the movie, it is not one I will choose to watch very often.