The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)

D: Kevin Reynolds
S: Jim Caviezel, Guy Pearce

The latest in a series of relatively infrequent but very welcome old-fashioned swashbucklers is an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' novel of misadventure and revenge. Like The Man in the Iron Mask it is very solid stuff on the storytelling level and quite respectable from a technical standpoint. Yet only The Mask of Zorro has had the moral purity at heart and properly mischievous glint in its proverbial eye to make it splendid entertainment. The Count of Monte Cristo is good, but a little ponderous. It also conveniently drops its religious sub-plot and its interplay between the worlds of old and new testament notions of justice and vengeance in favour of a pretty straightforward Death Wish type tale of retribution.

When naive sailor Edmond Dantès (Jim Caviezel) accepts a letter from imprisoned Napoleon Bonaparte (Alex Norton) on the island of Elba, he unwittingly sets a chain of events in motion which will see him betrayed by best friend Fernand Montego (Guy Pearce), abandoned by his fiancé Mercédès Iguanada (Dagmara Dominczyk), and sent to a windswept island prison by the ambitious policeman M. Villefort (James Frain). While imprisoned, he is tortured by the gravel-voiced Michael Wincott and tutored by the venerable and hairy Richard Harris while he plans his escape. Once free he is befriended by pirate Luis Guzman and finds a lost treasure which allows him to plan an elaborate revenge. He returns to his former life in the guise of the fabulously wealthy Count of Monte Cristo, a character he has invented. Impressing himself upon the upper crust of post-Napoleonic French society, he plans the downfall and humiliation of his enemies, including his former flame, who has now taken up with Montego and has bore him a son named Albert (Henry Cavill). "Vengeance is mine" said the Lord; but in these days of more proactive retaliation things are liable to be a bit more personal.

Shot mostly in Ireland, Kevin Reynolds' film benefits from an authentic look and feel which comes from eschewing digital effects and unnecessary explosions. The coastline of Ireland is not exactly France and Italy, but the sense of the earth, sea, and sky photographed by Andrew Dunn is very strong. The land has presence, and the characters seem rooted by it. This locates the action in a physically believable world, and adds to the drama of the events which transpire there. Likewise the performances from Caviezel and Pearce are low key (almost the point of sombreness), which downplay the sensationalism expected of modern-day adventures and push things towards 'realism' if not necessarily towards 'reality'. The set, costume, and production design are also superb in this regard. Everything ranging from the dizzying and oppressive prison scenes to the elaborate domestic interiors has a credible look to it which prevents the whole affair from becoming an advertisement for period design.

Reynolds has chosen a fairly safe project here, and has pulled it off pretty well under the circumstances. It is not uncomfortably anachronistic like Robin Hood: Price of Thieves and the script has been more carefully worked out than Waterworld, but there is a hole in the film and it's not long-time collaborator Costner's absence. The film is lacking is on the subtextual level. Jay Wolpert's screenplay does an admirable job of compressing the sprawling storyline of the Dumas' novel into a relatively tidy 113 minutes. The film is busy on a story level throughout, and manages to balance its fairly large number of characters very well. Yet Wolpert seems so busy with the characters and plot that he neglects the substance of the tale as a moral lesson (as all such novels of adventure once were).

There is evidence of a thematic preoccupation with religion and class which encompasses specific references to economic theory and the use and consumption of wealth, social organisation and the expedience of justice in a society struggling with its concept of itself in the wake of a dictatorship, the role of education and the opportunities which learning brings with it, differing views of God's role in the lives of men: in short a wealth of interesting threads which Dumas would of course have had ample time to explore in the course of five hundred pages of text and Wolpert could not in a hundred and twenty one. The result is a film which therefore inevitably follows the straightest line to the end of the story, spinning a pretty solid yarn which nonetheless cries out for more background detail, not to mention a deeper sense of motivation for the central character's quest for revenge than the horrors he endures in prison.

Given that it lacks the potential richness of a more fully realised adaptation of the novel, we are then left with the expectation that the film will at least be lots of fun. The Mask of Zorro managed to give just about enough of a sense of social justice and moral righteousness to keep things ticking over, then excelled with the giddy thrills and wry grins of a great swashbuckler. The Count of Monte Cristo never really reaches these heights, opting instead for a serious tone matched by the grim determination Caviezel's (The Thin Red Line) performance. There are no mischievous smiles here, just the brooding face of a man driven by a need to avenge himself upon his enemies. He does a good job of portraying his character's initial innocence and is quite convincing as a haggard, would-be basket case during the prison scenes. But once he dons the disguise of the count, there is no great dash to him, no sense of roguish charm to make him a particularly interesting person that all of these Parisian snobs would be intrigued by. It seems that his desire for revenge has impoverished Dantès' imagination, or that the writer and actor have chosen to take the character's charade a tad more seriously than they needed to.

Pearce (L.A. Confidential) likewise works very hard to create a believably malevolent adversary. The character is motivated by jealousy and snobbery which makes him mean and nasty rather than moustache-twirlingly villainous. Pearce accordingly plays him with taught expressions and a suggestion of physical stiffness which borders on sociopathic detachment. The best bit of supporting acting comes from Harris though, whose performance is filled with a sense of the kind of intelligence and patience which makes his character convincing. He is also able to laugh from time to time, and has enough variety in tone to suggest different emotional textures and psychological attitudes. He also has a great entrance and a dignified exit. It is a nice role and the actor seems to enjoy it.

As the love interest, Dominczyk has little enough to do to suggest that contemporary screenwriters have yet to find a way to make the female world of the adventure novel more acceptable to modern viewers without wrecking the story. It is the nature of the genre that the female is decorative and motivational. As such Mercédès remains a background figure at best and Dominczyk is required to do little more than weep on cue. Of note is the fact that though each of the male characters visibly ages by sixteen years or so in the course of the story, she looks no different on her first appearance than she does at the climax. This is as much a signal as to why she's there as anything you get from close analysis of the textual dynamics.

Frain (Elizabeth) is very good as the amoral M. Villefort, playing each scene in the moment and giving plausible responses to the other actors' lines. Wincott (Along Came a Spider) does his usual turn as a sleazy minor villain. Guzman (Out of Sight) seems more uncomfortable than he has ever been on film. Though almost the entire cast give solid performances, the only actor who seems to be having much fun is J.B. Blanc as a tough but affable Italian pirate. His performance gives us a snippet of the kind of boisterous masculinity which this kind of thing used to be all about. It's not a question of sniggering up the sleeve or pushing towards self-apologetic parody, but contemporary costume films seem unable to get to grips with an image of masculinity now usually read as closeted homosexuality (The Mask of Zorro excepted). Lighten up, guys!

Audiences looking for a pretty good night's modern swashbuckling should not be disappointed with The Count of Monte Cristo, but in spite of a scene in which fireworks explode over House (standing in for a Parisian mansion), the film lacks the spark which would really set it alight.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.