The Count of Monte Cristo

 

Robin Clifford 

Laura Clifford 
Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezal) is second mate on a ship forced to seek help on the Island of Elbe, a prison holding the infamous Napoleon Bonaparte. When the fallen emperor seeks a simple favor from the illiterate sailor - deliver an innocent letter to a friend in France - he opens Dantes up to betrayal and imprisonment in the notorious Chateau D'If. Escape and revenge are Edmond's only recourse in director Kevin Reynolds's remake of the oft-told Alexandre Dumas tale, "The Count of Monte Cristo.".

Robin:
When Edmond returns from Elbe, his life is looking up. His stop on the island to help his sick captain results in the ship's owner offering Dantes command of the vessel. His best friend, Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce), has harbored jealousy over the loving relationship between Edmond and his fiancée, the beautiful Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk), and uses the letter from Napoleon to get his friend arrested and imprisoned. Conspiring with the local magistrate, Villefort (James Frain), Mondego convinces Mercedes that Dantes was executed for treason. He gets the girl and Edmond is on his way to a life imprisoned in Chateau D'If where he is under the control of sadistic warden Dorleac (Michael Wincott).

One day, after years without human contact, Edmonds cell is broken into by another inmate, Abbe Faria (Richard Harris), an old soldier-turned-priest who has been digging an escape tunnel for years. The cleric sees the humorous irony of his breaking into another cell while escaping his own and takes Edmond on as a friend and student, teaching him to read, write and sword fight. Together, they plan another escape until tragedy strikes and Faria is killed - but not before he tells his friend about stolen gold he has hidden away on the Isle of Monte Cristo. Dantes fulfills the escape plans, finds the gold and begins, in earnest, to formulate his plans of revenge against Mondego and the rest as the extraordinarily wealthy Count of Monte Cristo.

For such a grand historical drama "The Count of Monte Cristo" has a stinginess about it that keeps the story and the action surrounding it from opening up. Part of this is due to the fact that, after the principle players, there are few supporting characters that are allowed to flesh out the background. It is up to the stars, alone, to draw us in to Dumas's tale of revenge but I think that the task proves too daunting.

Jim Caviezal has the handsome looks, striking blue eyes and physical presence to give a fair accounting for himself as the vengeful Edmond Dantes. Guy Pearce, as Edmond's former friend and current nemesis Fernand Mondego, is no more than a two-dimensional bad guy. Mondego is supposed to have been Edmond's friend since childhood, but the actor is so sullen and unlikable as the character the friendship simply doesn't make sense. (This is one of the liberties that scripter Jay Wolpert takes with the Dumas original. In the author's novel Edmond and Fernand are barely acquainted. The screenplay should have kept it that way.)

Richard Harris, as Edmond's friend and mentor, Abbe Faria, fares best of all of cast. The veteran thesp puts a dignified, sometimes humorous spin on his perf as the pragmatic cleric who takes on the task of educating the illiterate Dantes. The old man provides Edmond with hope to escape his prison and, with a secret, hidden treasure trove, the means to do good, but the younger man has only revenge on his mind. Dagmara Dominczyk as Mercedes, the object of affection for Edmond and attention for Fernand, is pretty enough to make us believe that hers could be the face that launched a thousand ships, but, when extensive dialog is required, her reading turns wooden. James Frain, as the villainous Villefort, the official responsible for Edmond's unfair incarceration, draws a complex characterization of a man whose own gains come first - even if it means jailing an innocent.

Director Kevin Reynolds does a lopsided job helming these proceeds. Lots of time is spent on narrative and explanation of what's happening and not nearly enough is spent on the several fight scenes that pepper the film. (This is a swashbuckling story, after all.) For instance, when the newly escaped Dantes is caught by local pirates, he is told that he must fight for his life against one of theirs, a little guy named Jacopo (Luis Guzman). I expected a bout between the two that would explain the bond that builds between them. Instead, it is slam, bam, thank you, ma'am and the knife fight is over before it really begins. The same goes for the climactic duel between Edmond and...oops, I've said enough. I don't want to give anything away here if you don't know the classic tale.

The screenplay, adapted from the Dumas novel by Wolpert, is a mix of period speech and contemporary lingo that doesn't always work. (At one point, Jacopo offers to kill his new friend's enemies, "bam, bam, bam, bam. Like that." I felt like I was watching a discussion between Dr. Evil and his son Scott in "Austin Powers.") This kind of modern/hip talk is fun in a film like "A Knight's Tale" but loses its cool quotient when slapped on a Dumas classic. (Imagine if Cervantes had Sancho Panza tell Don Quixote to "take a chill pill.")

Techs are decent and the Malta and Ireland exteriors are visually stunning. Costume designer Tom Rand does a good job creating a convincing look for all of the players, with the Count of Monte Cristo taking on an elegant oriental-looking wardrobe. Andrew Dunn's lensing helps keep things looking good.

While watching Reynolds's  "The Count the Monte Cristo" I could not get the 1974 version, starring Richard Chamberlain in the title role, out of my head, making me want to see that interesting telling of the tale again. Better still, it whets my appetite to try and find the acclaimed 1934 making starring Robert Donat. The modern remake of Dumas's story is long on narrative and (too) short on action. I give it a B-.

Laura:
When sailor Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel, "Angel Eyes") overrules first mate Danglars (Albie Woodington) to take his ailing captain to an island shore, it sets in motion a shatteringly life-changing course of events. Unwittingly, he and his childhood friend Fernand (Guy Pearce, "Memento") land on Elba, where they're attacked by British dragoons holding Napoleon (Alex Norton, "Local Hero") in exile.  They survive (although their captain is less fortunate) and return to Marseilles with the guileless Edmond carrying a secret letter for Napoleon.

Denounced by Danglars, Edmond is amazed to find himself promoted to captain by the ship's owner, but his celebration is short-lived.  Fernand, jealous of Edmond's good fortune and lusting after his fiance Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk), informs local magistrate Villefort (James Frain, "Where the Heart Is") of that treacherous letter.  Convinced of Edmond's innocence, Villefort is on the verge of releasing him when he asks Edmond who the recipient is. Hearing the name of his own father, Villefort is determined to protect himself and has Edmond sent to the notorious island prison of Chateau D'If. There Edmond spends thirteen years dreaming of revenge which a fortuitous friendship with another prisoner will allow him to enact as "The Count of Monte Cristo."

Kevin Reynolds' ("Waterworld") umpteenth film version of the Alexandre Dumas tale (adapted by Jay Wolpert) features stunning Maltese locations and attractive leads, but the unfortunate decision to make Fernand a childhood friend of Edmond's without making that friendship believable detracts from, rather than adds tension to, the tale.  This swashbuckler, in which buckles are swashed too perfunctorily, is a middling entertainment.

While Caviezel is a pleasant enough lead, coming into his own after his transformation into the titular count, Guy Pearce's Fernand is so immediately recognizable as the worst type of snivelling villain that the characters' lifelong friendship seems absurd.  The use of a chess piece as a token between the two kept by the 'king of the moment,' may as well have a flashing arrow titled 'symbolic plot device' pointing towards it.

Thank heavens for Richard Harris whose imprisoned Abbe Faria enables Edmond's transformation.  His performance as a down to earth priest with senses of determination, right and humor gives the film some much needed weight.  Alas, after a most amusing entrance, Harris' exit arrives all too soon, but offers Edmond a means to escape.

Edmond washes ashore and immediately falls in with a band of entertaining pirates, where he acquires right-hand man Jacopo (the usually great Luis Guzman, unwisely used here for comic effect, the film's worst offense).  Edmond and Jacopo locate the treasure from a map the Abbe had given him, only if he were to use the money for good.  Edmond believes revenge is a just cause.

"The Count of Monte Cristo" certainly looks good, with aquamarine seas reflecting off the cliffs of Malta's Comino island and opulent interiors built in Ireland.  Lavish costumes by Tom Rand ("The Duelists") are a given for this type of period piece.  Most unfortunately, the treasure featured in a number of shots includes cheesy plastic baubles masquerading as jewels amidst the more realistic looking gold coins.  The Count makes his arrival in society by staging an elaborate party complete with fireworks and entrance by hot air balloon like an 19th century Malcolm Forbes. The makeup used to make the older Fernand look debauched is notable.

C+

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