Bygone Days

Reviewed By: K.A. Corlett [The Count
	    of Monte Cristo]
Directed By: Kevin Reynolds
Genre: Historical
Starring: James Caviezel, Guy Pearce
Date: 2002

     How do you condense an 850-page book into 2 action-and-intrigue-packed hours of silver screen time? Through a judicious process of slashing, burning, splicing and grafting, apparently. The Count of Monte Cristo , directed by Kevin Reynolds, is based on the classic novel by Alexandre Dumas père.

     Even when it was published in 1844, The Count of Monte Cristo was a piece of historical fiction; Dumas made excellent use of actual French events--and some actual personalities--running back to the days of the Revolution. Dumas' story of Edmond Dantès, the unjustly imprisoned young sailor who returns after many years to wreak revenge on those who wronged him, is a truly epic tale. The plot of "Monte Cristo" is an intricate tapestry with a truly staggering number of players. Minute details that at first seem of little consequence end up as important puzzle pieces. We are taken from Marseilles to Rome to Paris and back again and dazzled by incredible squalor, subterranean taverns full of treasure, and the rise and fall of great households. Edmond Dantès moves remarkably like the hand of God, serving up deserts tailored justly to each of his enemies and their particular sins. Ah, karma.

     Kevin Reynolds' movie does not follow the novel's plot exceptionally closely. The basics are there: Edmond's love for the beautiful Mercedès, his draconian imprisonment in the Chateau d'If as a Bonapartist, and the eventual marriage of Mercedès to his rival Fernand Mondego. The treacherous prosecutor Villefort is present, played to a T by James Frain, but Reynolds doesn't delve into the Bonapartist politics of Villefort's father Noirtier, nor does he bother to include the romantic subplot of Villefort's daughter Valentine and her love Maximilian Morrel.

     In fact, a good deal of the historical texture is lacking or barely touched on here: Dumas' references to the Revolution, Louis XVIII and the nitty-gritty political intrigue of France 1814-1830. In the book, all that's part of the fun. It was a relief, though, to see Napoleon portrayed by Alex Norton with some degree of gravity; so often directors depict him as a puny, ranting tyrant whose feet don't reach the floor when he sits in a chair.

     One could go on forever detailing the parts of the novel that the director opted to remove, but then, one can only include so much in the space of 141 minutes, give or take.

     The 1975 made-for-TV version starring (eek!) Richard Chamberlain followed the novel's plot much more closely, and die-hard Dumas fans might find it more satisfying in that sense. Chamberlain is remarkably restrained (for Chamberlain, I must emphasize), and he has an incredible supporting cast including Donald Pleasance and Kate Nelligan. But in the '70s they still did things like cheesy lingering close-ups, strutting Counts who toss their capes to servants, and heavy-handed mood music. Conventions have changed in Hollywood over the last 30 years. Grâce à dieu! I look forward to tracking down the 1934 and 1958 versions, and I've yet to see the 1998 French mini-series starring (argh!) Gérard Depardieu. I just cannot imagine His Substantialness as the skeletal Count.

     In the 2002 version, James Caviezel makes out brilliantly as Edmond Dantès. He begins with the wide-eyed innocence and goodwill of Dumas' young sailor, and hardens nicely into the cool Count of later years. In fact his performance reminds one a bit of Daniel Day Lewis. If one were to criticize, it might be that perhaps director Reynolds did not allow him quite enough edge--he could have been just a touch nastier without losing the sympathy of the audience.

     Strangely, Guy Pearce (Priscilla of the Desert, Memento) is touted as the 'star' of the film, but he actually plays the villain, Fernand Mondego. Unlike the novel, the movie focuses primarily on the rivalry between Mondego and Dantès. This adds more focus to the plot onscreen. It works, but it is disappointing to those of us who adore the complexity of Dumas' original work. Guy Pearce is petulant, playing Fernand as more of a nasty boy, with none of the bearing of the elder, respected politician in the book. In the context of this particular movie the thin-bodied Pearce suits, too; he does it his own haughty way. It would have been enjoyable seeing someone more like Oded Fahr (Ardeth in The Mummy series) in the role, but alas.

     All characters are less complex than in Dumas' novel--this is to be expected--and the interplay of revenge and consequences much more simplistic. There is a lot of talk of God and how Edmond can never seem to escape Him, whereas in the novel The Count is convinced that he is the instrument of God's justice, however uneasy he might be with the role. Sacrifices to make the story more palatable to the mainstream audience also include the total rapprochement of Edmond and Mercedès. The 'God has given me back everything I lost' and 'God is everywhere' messages are a bit heavy-handed. The novel, much subtler and even more realistic in this sense, doesn't include the same happy resumption of love once lost. Dumas fashions a somewhat more sober 'fairy tale' ending.

     There are a few cloying moments in the script. For instance The Count's sidekick Jacopo, on seeing Edmond's scars from years of whipping in the Chateau d'If, asks him whether the marks hurt. And Mercedès, in reference to Edmond's long years of imprisonment, asks him whether he suffered. DUH, lady. Other groaners include a recently escaped castaway Edmond telling some smugglers they should "get out more". And there are definitely a few more cheesy moments with Jacopo, who sounds like he's a punk from da Lower East Side.

     Despite all that, The Count of Monte Cristo is a wonderfully fun film with excellent performances--a real swashbuckling good time. In that sense it certainly captures the spirit of the original novel. It is delicious to see Michael Wincott (Top Dollar in The Crow) as Dorleac, the sadistic jailer of the Chateau d'If. And of course Richard Harris is great-o-godlike as the Abbé Faria, who teaches Edmond everything from Platonic philosophy to advanced arithmetic. You can't keep a good film down. James Caviezel deserves a slew of starring roles--one hopes to see much more of him in future. And men of the 1830s sure knew how to dress, or let us say director Reynolds had a fine wardrobe crew. Historically speaking, après tout, this was the time of the French 'dandy'. The cinematography is also quite remarkable. In particular there is a lovely long shot of Fernand riding toward a ruined chateau scattering birds and parting long grasses.

     So, taken all in all, does Kevin Reynolds' Count of Monte Cristo hold up? As the opening credits rolled and a map of 19th Century Corsica and Elba appeared onscreen, I turned to the friend beside me and whispered, "Imagine what Alexandre Dumas would have thought if he could have lived to see this." As a writer of historical fiction, I don't think I'd be too displeased with the mutation and condensation of my plot, provided it was done with this much fun, skill, and style. Ultimately the 2002 movie version is successful in that it inspires one to dive back into the original book. An author could ask for more, but ça suffit--it is enough.

K.A. Corlett

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