In 1815, convict Jean Valjean is released on parole by prison guard Javert after serving a nineteen-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread and numerous escape attempts. Valjean is refused employment and driven out of every town, because of his paroled status. He is offered food and shelter by the Bishop of Digne, but steals his silver during the night. When he is captured by the authorities, the Bishop tells them that the silver was given as a gift, securing Valjean's release. The Bishop urges Valjean to do something worthwhile with his life. Moved by the Bishop's grace, Valjean breaks his parole and vows to start a new life under a new identity.
Eight years later, Valjean has become a factory owner and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, and Javert is assigned as his new chief of police. In their initial meeting, Javert recognises his face, but cannot place it, and after witnessing him demonstrate his strength by lifting a heavy cart to free a man trapped underneath, becomes suspicious that he is the convict who broke his parole eight years earlier. Meanwhile, Fantine, one of Valjean's workers, is discovered to be sending money to her illegitimate daughter, Cosette, who lives with the unscrupulous Thénardiers and their daughter Éponine. The foreman, angry that Fantine has spurned his advances, dismisses her for her promiscuity. In a desperate attempt to support her daughter, she sells her hair and teeth and eventually becomes a prostitute. She is arrested by Javert after she attacks an abusive customer, but is saved by Valjean, who has her hospitalised and watches over her.
Later, Valjean learns that a man believed to be him has been arrested. Unable to accept that an innocent man could be condemned in his place, Valjean reveals his identity to the court. He returns to the hospital, where he promises the dying Fantine he will look after her daughter. Javert arrives to take Valjean into custody, but Valjean pleads for enough time to rescue Cosette. After a brief fight, Valjean jumps into a river to escape. He finds the Thénardiers, pays Fantine's debts, and leaves with Cosette, promising to be like a father to her. Valjean and Cosette flee to Paris. The Thénardiers wonder whether they demanded enough money from Valjean, and how much more money he might have. Javert vows to bring the escaped convict to justice.
Nine years later, there is increasing poverty in Paris. Jean Maximilien Lamarque, the only government official sympathetic towards the poor, is nearing death; therefore a large group of young revolutionary students, known as the Friends of the ABC, plan a rebellion against the French monarchy. The students consist of Marius Pontmercy, Enjolras, Gavroche, Grantaire, Courfeyrac, Combeferre, Joly, and Jehan Prouvaire. Marius lives in a small room near the Thénardiers and has become friendly with their daughter, Éponine. Éponine is deeply in love with Marius, though he considers her merely his best friend.
When Valjean and Cosette are out giving alms to the poor, Marius catches a glimpse of Cosette, now a young woman, and instantly falls in love with her. The Thénardiers also see Valjean and believe that they now have their chance to extract more money from him. Valjean and Thénardier have an argument and Javert arrives in the street to break it up. Valjean and Cosette slip away before Javert can recognize them. Thénardier cooks up a plot to rob Valjean. Marius pleads with Éponine to find out where Cosette lives so he can see her again.
At a wine shop, Enjolras is rallying the students when they receive word that Lamarque has died. Éponine leads Marius to Cosette. The two profess their love for one another, while Éponine laments that her secret love for Marius will go unrequited. As Marius and Cosette conclude their talk, Thénardier's gang arrives at Valjean's home to capture him for a reward from Javert. Éponine screams to warn Valjean and Cosette. Thénardier is enraged at Éponine's interference. Valjean decides to flee, unaware of Cosette's desire for Marius. Cosette tries to talk him out of it, then asks him questions about her past, and his as well. Valjean refuses to tell her anything. She leaves a note for Marius to tell him why she's leaving. Éponine finds Cosette's letter to Marius, who is heartbroken to lose the love of his life so soon after he's found her. He sends a farewell to Cosette and, having nothing left to live for, joins the revolution. Éponine joins too, just to be near Marius. Enjolras urges the Parisians to full revolt.
The next day, the students interrupt Lamarque's funeral procession and begin their revolt. They throw up barricades all over the city. Javert poses as a rebel in order to spy on them, but is quickly exposed by Gavroche and captured. During the ensuing battle, Éponine saves Marius from blowing up the barricade at the cost of her own life. She gives Marius the letter Cosette wrote and professes her love to him before she dies in his arms, leaving Marius devastated at the loss of his best friend.
Meanwhile, Marius asks Gavroche to deliver the letter for Cosette and is instead given to Valjean. He intercepts the letter from Marius to Cosette and learns of their love. He abandons his plans to flee the country and instead goes to the barricade to protect Marius. After saving Enjolras from a sniper, he is allowed to execute Javert. However, when the two are alone, Valjean frees Javert. Javert leaves, confused by this act of mercy from a criminal whom he holds in low regard.
With the Parisians not joining the revolution as the students expected, they resolve to fight to the death. Everyone is killed except Marius, who is saved when Valjean drags his unconscious body into the sewers before the army arrives. Thénardier discovers Marius and Valjean and steals Marius's ring before moving on to scavenge other bodies. Valjean escapes the sewers carrying Marius, but is confronted by Javert. Valjean begs for one hour to take Marius to a doctor. Javert refuses and threatens to shoot him if he does not surrender. Valjean ignores him and leaves with Marius. Unable to reconcile the conflict between his civil and moral duties, two things which he always considered the same, Javert jumps to his death in the Seine.
Marius recovers at his grandfather's home without knowing who rescued him from the barricade. He mourns his friends, and Cosette comforts him. Valjean sees that Cosette and Marius are happy together and believes that his presence can only threaten their happiness. He reveals his past to Marius and tells him he must leave to ensure their safety and hapiness. Marius is shocked, and at first attempts to persuade him to stay, but reluctantly accepts Valjean's decision to leave. He vows that he will not tell Cosette that her father is a fugitive.
Marius and Cosette marry, although Cosette is sad that Valjean is not with them. The Thénardiers crash the reception and tell Marius that they saw his father-in-law (Valjean) carrying a murdered corpse through the sewers. They plan to blackmail him to keep it quiet. As proof, Thénardier shows Marius the ring that he stole from the murder victim in the sewers. Recognising the ring, Marius realizes it was Valjean who saved his life. Marius and Cosette hurry off to find Valjean, who is dying in a local convent. As he perceives Fantine's spirit arriving to take him to Heaven, Cosette and Marius rush in to bid him farewell. Valjean hands Cosette his confession of his past life and joins the spirits of the Bishop, Fantine, Enjolras, Éponine, Gavroche, Courfeyrac, Joly and the other rebels at the barricade.
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