The Count of Monte Cristo
Screenplay : Jay Wolpert (based on the book by Alexandre Dumas)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : James Caviezel (Edmund Dantes), Guy Pearce (Fernand Mondego), Richard Harris (Faria), Dagmara Dominczyk (Mercedes), James Frain (Villefort), Luis Guzman (Jacobo), Michael Wincott (Dorleac)
The Count of Monte Cristo is a surprisingly effective throwback to the heyday of swashbuckling movie adventures and the pleasures of pulp-fiction-masquerading-as-great-literature (one might also think of Treasure Island or Tarzan of the Apes). Gamely directed by Kevin Reynolds without the weight of Kevin Costner's presence (ala (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld), it works despite (or perhaps because of) its complete lack of irony and its willful old-fashionedness.
Although the movie starts off in dangerously slow fashion, it ultimately draws us into Alexandre Dumas' classic tale of betrayal and sweet revenge. Set in the early part of the 19th century, it boasts strong production design by Mark Geraghty (Welcome to Sarajevo) to recreate Marseilles and Paris and is well-photographed by Andrew Dunn (Gosford Park).
James Caviezel, finally dropping the morose sullenness that has characterized too many of his performances (Angel Eyes sunk like a stone under all his brooding), stars as Edmund Dantes, a good-hearted if terribly naive young man of lower-class origins who is betrayed by Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce, Memento), a foppish, wealthy brat whom Edmund falsely believes to be his friend. The motivation here is simple envy: Edmund is not only doing better professionally than Fernand, having just been made captain of a ship, but he is also engaged to the beautiful Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk), on whom Fernand has had a crush since childhood. Fernand doesn't love her of course, because that is beyond his capabilities; he simply wants to possess her.
Yet, the situation is not so simple, as screenwriter Jay Wolpert constantly foregrounds the class tensions that drive this envy, making it clear that much of Fernand's hang-up is the fact that Edmund is of a lower class (being the son of a clerk, while Fernand is the son of a count). Thus, in Fernand's Darwinian social order, he feels the need to take Edmund down a few notches for overshadowing him. Actually, with the help of a corrupt magistrate (James Frain) eager to hide his own complicity in treasonous activity, Fernand takes his friend all the way down: Edmund ends up being convicted for treason and is taken away to the Chateau d'If, an isolated prison island where he is locked away in a dark, tiny cell, taken out only once a year to be beaten.
The years pass (Caviezel does get to do some serious brooding here, but it's well earned), and, just before Edmund loses all hope (along with his mind), he strikes up a relationship with Faria (Richard Harris), an old soldier-turned-priest who, in his attempt to tunnel out of the Chateau d'If, actually tunnels into Edmund's cell. Faria convinces Edmund to help him tunnel in the right direction, and in exchange Faria will educate him. So, over the next several years, they dig away at night, while Faria instructs Edmund in everything from Adam Smith's economic theories, to Machiavellian political strategies, to physics, to swordfighting techniques. He also gives him a secret map that leads to a vast treasure buried on a remote island off the coast of Italy—Monte Cristo.
So, after 15 years of wrongful imprisonment, Edmund eventually escapes, finds the treasure, and uses its untold wealth to finance his elaborate scheme of vengeance on Fernand (who has married Mercedes, who thinks Edmund was executed) and those with whom Fernand plotted. Edmund assumes to the guise of the fictional Count of Monte Cristo, and while he woos Parisian high society with his wealth and audacity (he throws a vast party and makes his entrance by hot-air balloon), he begins to set traps for those who betrayed him.
Edmund is intent that his betrayers must suffer as he suffered by seeing everything they hold dear stripped away from them—simply killing them would be too easy. He is aided in this complex endeavor by Jacobo (Luis Guzman), a pirate who swears allegiance to him after Edmund spares his life in a duel. Jacobo becomes more than just a confidante and sidekick, though—he also plays the role of Edmund's conscience, which, in his quest for revenge, almost completely disappears.
In addition to Caviezel's engaging performance as Edmund, Guy Pearce turns Fernand into a striking, almost campy villain. As both actors have primarily starred in less-flashy roles, this is a chance for them to bring independent spirit to potential caricatures. Pearce is particularly adept at mixing the complex with the cartoonish, at times sneering and seething like something out of an old B-movie, but at other times suggesting a deep self-hatred that almost makes his back-stabbing character seem sadly sympathetic. He never goes too far down that road, though, as the pleasure of The Count of Monte Cristo is derived precisely from hating his guts and desiring to see him get his comeuppance.
This is not to suggest that The Count of Monte Cristo is in any way ideologically complicated. Quite the opposite, actually. It works in broad strokes, which is part of what makes it hard to resist. It is difficult not to sympathize with Edmund, even when he lets his plans for vengeance blind his genuine human feelings. Having watched him suffer incredibly for 15 years, stewing in his anger at those who betrayed him and slowly losing his faith in God, you want him to get even, which is precisely the power of the narrative.
And, in good Hollywood fashion, it is constructed in such a way that Edmund can exact his revenge, but not wear the concomitant moral baggage because he realizes in the end that vengeance is not the right answer, and that he should use his resources for good. It's a bit of an ideological cop-out, really, but by then we have been drawn so deep into the story that it is only fodder for hindsight and will only be taken seriously by those who fail to find pleasure in a little simplicity now and then.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick