A hardened ex-convict has just robbed a bishop — the only person who had been kind to him. He’s promptly caught and dragged back to the scene of the crime to face his punishment.

Instead, he receives undreamed-of mercy.

This shattering, transformative act is at the heart of “Les Misérables,” the musical film that opened Christmas Day. The record-breaking movie is simultaneously gritty and filled with grace. Its heroes are the outcast, the neglected, the unseen—from the broken thief whose soul is redeemed, to the abandoned child he goes on to save.

Based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel and the stage musical that it inspired, this version of “Les Misérables” has been trying to make it to movie theaters for more than 20 years. The story carries us through several decades in the life of reformed thief Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man who possesses, in Hugo’s words, both “the aspirations of a saint” and “the formidable talents of a criminal.”

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