Counting on Dumas
No matter how many times I see a movie version of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, I’m with it all the way. Themes of betrayal, revenge, and romance intertwine in a great story that never seems to grow stale. And all that exciting sword fighting helps too! In this latest screen adaptation, James Caviezel plays Edmond Dantes/Monte Cristo. This charismatic young actor clearly relishes the opportunity to show his character’s breadth and depth of emotion as he goes from a trusting sailor to the falsely imprisoned victim of jealous conspirators. Portraying Mondego, Dantes’ treacherous friend, Guy Pearce takes screen villainy to new heights --- or should I say lows? Adopting a stiff posture, sneering expression, and attitude of superiority, he succeeds in painting a disturbing cinematic portrait of evil.
The first Monte Cristo movie I remember co-starred Robert Donat and Sidney Blackmer as these two mortal enemies. Although black and white photography couldn’t do justice to the lush French countryside (Ireland stands in for France in the new movie), the film’s characters were just as dashing and colorful. Before that 1934 version, two silent movies about the vengeful Count were produced --- one starring the great John Gilbert. Other actors who have portrayed Dantes include Gerard Depardieu, Louis Jourdan, and Richard Chamberlain (in a 1975 television production). Even Chamberlain couldn’t spoil this classic swashbuckler. There’s also been a Russian version, a Spanish version, a Mexican version, and an animated version.
Alexandre Dumas, a prolific 19th century French author, first wrote this fascinating tale as a serial novel in the 1840s. Now, The Count of Monte Cristo is considered one of the foundations of popular culture. If Dumas were alive today, I think he’d be a screenwriter. A master at dialogue and at developing character traits, he always kept the action going and composed chapter endings that teased readers into wanting to read more. Among his other works receiving numerous film treatments are The Man in the Iron Mask and The Three Musketeers.
Director Kevin Reynolds (Waterworld) and new screenwriter Jay Wolpert wisely followed events in the book very closely for their film treatment of The Count of Monte Cristo. But they took a big liberty by making Dantes and Mondego childhood friends. Dumas wrote them as barely acquainted. Because this change makes the betrayal even more despicable, I approve. Early on in the movie, I learned a lot about the difference between Dantes and Mondego when Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk), Dantes’ sweetheart, taunts Mondego about his jealousy by reminding him, "I remember once when you were children --- and you got a pony and Edmond got a whistle. You were angry because he was happier with his whistle than you were with your pony."
I’m also pleased that Caviezel (Angel Eyes) interpreted Dantes in his own way. "I didn’t see any of the previous movie versions because I didn’t want to take anything from them," he claims. The way he related to the part was "through the notion of losing your faith, of hating God and then coming back to finding peace again." Caviezel compares it to a journey of having to go through hell to become a better man.
The hell Dantes "goes through" involves loss of everything he holds dear, including his freedom. While spending thirteen years in prison, he dreams of nothing but revenge against Mondego and the others who put him there. Through the help of another prisoner (Richard Harris), he escapes with a treasure map. After finding the enormous treasure, Dantes finally has the means to wreak his revenge by disguising himself as the wealthy Count of Monte Cristo.
The last third of the film exceeded my expectations, even for a Dumas adaptation. Opulent Parisian mansions, gorgeous Napoleonic era costumes, and artistic cinematography wowed me almost as much as the riveting story and those dynamic performances by Caviezel and Pearce (Memento).
But does Dantes achieve his big plans for exacting revenge? Not completely. As his prison savior (Harris) says, "Revenge is a meal endlessly cooked and seldom eaten."
(Released by Touchstone Pictures and rated "PG-13" for adventure violence, swordplay, and some sensuality.)