The first few weeks of the year are often a movie dead zone — a dumping ground for studios to unload projects they have no confidence in and weren’t willing to throw into the holiday glut. On paper, that might be exactly where you’d expect to find the latest cinematic stab at Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.
After all, consider Hollywood’s recent track record with Dumas adaptations: the campy 1993 Brat-Pack Three Musketeers, also known as "The Three Muskedudes’ Excellent Adventure"; the 1998 DiCaprio vehicle The Man in the Iron Mask, featuring twice as much Leo in dual roles; and last year’s unrecognizable, martial-arts flavored The Musketeer, featuring 75% fewer musketeers.
So why is this year’s reimagining of The Count of Monte Cristo the best swashbuckler since The Mask of Zorro? In fact, why did it keep reminding me of The Mask of Zorro, a benchmark among late-90s action movies?
Partly it’s because the relationship in Zorro between Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins is here mirrored by that of young Edmond Dàntes (James Caviezel of Frequency) and the learned old priest Abbe Faria (Richard Harris, last seen in Harry Potter). In both films, a young illiterate who has been wronged meets a long-imprisoned old master who imparts to him the skills and deportment necessary to infiltrate the society of those who wronged him and avenge himself.
But there’s also another, more important similarity: Like The Mask of Zorro, Monte Cristo balances its anachronistic sensibilities and over-the-top set pieces with genuine emotion and a real moral dimension — even, in Monte Cristo, a spiritual dimension. This is an action movie that’s also a morality play, a tale of injustice and vengeance that actually reckons on God, faith, and divine justice.
There are times when this movie has its tongue in its cheek, but it’s quite serious about the message scratched on a cell wall at the island-prison of Château D’If by some anonymous prisoner: "God will give me justice." When the sadistic warden (Michael Wincott) sneers at such displays of faith ("God has nothing to do with it — in fact God is never in France this time of year"), Dàntes counters, "God has everything to do with it. He’s everywhere. He sees everything."
Even when Dàntes loses his faith during his long imprisonment and longs only for revenge, his priestly mentor puts a perceptive theological spin on it: "Perhaps your thoughts of revenge have served God’s purpose in keeping you alive these many years." When Dàntes protests that he no longer believes in God, the priest answers placidly, "No matter; he believes in you."
In Dumas’ novel, the hero never questioned God’s existence; but he also never struggled (or not much) with the morality of his crusade for vengeance. Instead, after escaping from the Château D’If, Dumas’ hero became an unstoppable agent of divine judgment, ruthlessly bringing ruin to those responsible for his imprisonment. Armed with encyclopedic knowledge gained from the Abbe Faria — as well as the fabulous riches of a long-lost treasure — Dàntes became the awesomely powerful Count of Monte Cristo, able to bestow misery or happiness at will.
Dumas even made his hero arrogate to himself such godlike privileges as to visit suffering even upon his friends — so as to increase their final happiness. Nor was he above killing a well-intentioned youth in a duel — though he was also equally ready to throw the duel and die when the lad’s mother, Dàntes’ own one-time fiancée Mercedes, pleaded for her son’s life. (Neither died in fact; the duel was ultimately averted.)
Dumas’ story of a seemingly all-powerful figure bringing absolute judgment may make for riveting reading, but there seems no way morally to avoid the conclusion that the protagonist was not only a terrible man but also quite possibly insane. (Small wonder that the novel was once on the Catholic Church’s now-defunct Index of Forbidden Books.)
But this film has a different story to tell. We’re not talking about a Masterpiece Theater rendering of Dumas, or even a Classics Illustrated abridgement. This is pop moviemaking in the tradition of, say, The Patriot, and it adapts freely, reinventing a tale of implacable vengeance as a swashbuckling morality play. Shrewdly softening its hero while sharpening his moral conflict, the filmmakers succeed in minimizing some of the moral difficulties (while also adding a couple of new ones).
As reinvented here, the Count of Monte Cristo remains a masterful, calculating man, but on a more human scale; still haunted by hatred and revenge, he finds himself unable to ignore the line between justice and vengeance. Even his loyal servant Jacopo, here played for comic relief by an outrageously deadpan Luis Guzmán, is a voice of reason; he gets the movie’s best lines, and biggest laughs, questioning Monte Cristo’s plans of revenge.
And, while the Count in the book had no trouble reconciling his belief in God with his campaign of vengeance, the Count in this film is uneasily aware of the moral dilemma, and finds his professed atheism an imperfect defense. "God!" he cries out at one point. "Can I never escape him?"
Dàntes’ struggle with faith and morality comes to a head in a key scene in which he finds himself momentarily torn between love and vengeance. At hand are his sword and his beloved, and which of the two is more important to him is unclear, even to him. Unable to choose, he stares contemplatively at the ceiling, which as it happens is adorned by a fresco depicting the coronation of the Blessed Virgin.
It’s a small moment of grace; and, if it’s not enough by itself to save Dàntes, it does seem Providence is on his side, and there are lines he won’t have occasion to cross. The subplot from the book in which Dàntes is ready to kill an innocent surfaces in a new form in the film, along with the intervention that saves him from actually doing so.
James Caviezel, a devout Catholic, energizes the film in the title role. After his sympathetically unassuming turns in such pictures as Frequency and Pay it Forward, there was no question that he could play the naive, guileless Dàntes of the first act — but the commanding self-assurance and charisma he displays in the rest of the film is entirely new. He walks a razor’s edge between cruelty and restraint; it’s not the most virtuous path, but as he says at one point, "I’m a count… not a saint."
If in the end Monte Cristo’s moral redemption seems less than complete, perhaps it’s because the goal of becoming a saint is never in view. We clearly see how and why Dàntes loses his faith, but much less about how he regains it. It might almost be thought that he simply decided to believe in God again because, having triumphed over his enemies, he no longer needed to make excuses regarding his desire for revenge.
Another point worth noting is that, while the movie absolves Monte Cristo of the more disturbing offenses from the book, it also introduces new ones, particularly premarital sex and (arguably) adultery. Whereas in Dumas the young Dàntes makes a point that his fiancée Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk) is not his mistress, the Mercedes in the film happily surrenders her virginity to Dàntes when he reveals that they’ll be able to marry sooner than they previously thought.
"As soon as I can afford a ring…" he begins afterwards, but she interrupts, "I don’t need a ring, really I don’t." (Obviously.) Yet, having seen how events unfold, I understand why the filmmakers made the choices they did, and on the whole I find it a positive film.
It’s also a visually opulent, beautifully photographed film: From the breathtaking landscapes of Château D’If and Monte Cristo, to the extravagantly appointed estates of Monte Cristo and his archenemy Fernand Mondego (Memento’s Guy Pearce in enjoyably over-the-top villain mode), every shot seems carefully chosen, and there’s always something worth looking at onscreen. In fact, with the obvious exception of The Fellowship of the Ring, I can’t think of a recent movie I’ve enjoyed more on a visual level (and I’m not forgetting the visuals in Harry Potter). Sometimes it’s actually too opulent, notably during a dramatic entrance by the Count involving fireworks, a hot-air balloon, and rappelling acrobats. But go with it.
The story moves along nicely; highlights include some perfectly timed sequences at the Château D’If involving food bowls, and a few well-choreographed (and realistically brief) fight scenes. Apparently director Kevin Reynolds can make pictures worth watching; just keep him away from Kevin Costner (with whom Reynolds made such tripe as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld), and he should do all right from now on.
That’s not to say everyone will like this movie. In particular, fans of Dumas (or of more faithful adaptations) will be dismayed by the liberties: The film gives the Abbe Faria back story as an ex-soldier (so that he can teach Dàntes swordplay), makes Fernand Mondego a friend of Dàntes (thus making his treachery all the more hateful), conflates Mercedes with Haidee, Dàntes’ later love (thus avoiding the difficulty of introducing and developing a second love-interest), and so on. Already I can hear English teachers all across America wringing their hands.
Too bad for them. Despite its faults, The Count of Monte Cristo is rousing escapist entertainment — as much fun as you’re liable to have at the movies for quite some time.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.