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The world can be a terrible and cruel place. A miserable place, you might say. And that's especially true in 1815.
That's when the emaciated and hobbled Jean Valjean is finally released from his prison debts. Nearly 20 years he spent in near slavery—five for simply stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving child, another 14 for trying to escape his too-cruel bonds.
Valjean's misery doesn't end there, though. Even after parole he must carry and present his papers in every town and hamlet his bare, half-frozen feet can carry him to. Papers that mark him as a former criminal so that none of the locals will offer him work or give shelter to the likes of him. In fact, he's hounded and beaten like a mongrel wherever he goes. Kindness and forgiveness are but the hopes of fools.
Fortunately for Valjean there is one man who is willing to offer him a bit of both. A priest sees him shivering in a church doorway and invites him in for a meal, some bread, a glass of wine—luxuries Valjean never believed he'd see again.
In spite of this great kindness, however, the marked man can't keep himself from stealing the priest's few silver plates and cups. It's a shameful, ungrateful move born out of desperation. And he should have known that a criminal with a sack of stolen silver doesn't get far. The authorities nab him and drag him to the church, ready to beat him and send him back to the galleys.
It's then that Valjean gets his first glimpse of heaven's grace. Of God's infinite mercy even in the face of sickening sin.
The priest says that he freely gave the plates and cups to the ex-convict.
"In fact, you forgot the most valuable pieces," the priest reports, shoving two silver candlesticks into Valjean's sack. Then the kindly churchman whispers in Valjean's ear, "You must use this silver to become an honest man."
"What have I done, sweet Jesus?" Valjean shouts out as he gives lyrical voice to his inner pain and shame. "Is there another way to go?" And as he prays and cries before a church altar, the answer soon comes. Yes, there is another course, that inner voice seems to say. You must be a different man … a better man.
After 19 years as a prisoner, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is freed by Javert (Russell Crowe), the officer in charge of the prison workforce. Valjean promptly breaks parole but later uses money from stolen silver to reinvent himself as a mayor and factory owner. Javert vows to bring Valjean back to prison. Eight years later, Valjean becomes the guardian of a child named Cosette after her mother's (Anne Hathaway) death, but Javert's relentless pursuit means that peace will be a long time coming.