In what has become an unofficial ritual for myself whenever my birthday rolls around I always end up watching a film from 2002 that flew under the radar of most people. While it made modest box-office returns it wasn’t the head-turning blockbuster that some of its producers hoped it would turn out to be. It’s a romantic adventure piece by Kevin Reynolds and for readers of classic literature they’d recognize the title of the film, The Count of Monte Cristo. A film loosely based on the classic novel of adventure, revenge and redemption by French author Alexandre Dumas. The film ends up being a fun, thrilling throwback to films of an era which had marquee stars such as Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone.
The story is one known well enough. It’s a tale of a man, Edmond Dantès wrongly accussed of a capital crime and imprisoned in the Alcatraz-like prison Chateau d’If through the machinations of three individuals: his best friend Fernand Mondego, first mate Danglars and the ambitious deputy prosecutor Villefort. Dantès spends the next several years in Chateau d’If under the cruel and sadistic eyes of it’s warden, Armand Dorleac (played by Michael Wincott with his usual flair for sadism). It’s while Dantès has started to contemplate suicide after rejecting God for the pain and suffering he has had to endure that he has a fortuitious meeting with another guest of Chateau d’If. It’s this relationship between Dantès and Abbé Faria (Richard Harris in the mentor role he had begun to play in his later years) which take up the bulk of the first third of the film.
Dantès tells him of the circumstances which led to his imprison in Chateau d’If and the thoughts of vengeance on those responsible for his predicament. Faria tries to turn him from his dark path, but seeing how determined his young friend seems on journeying down its twisted path he agrees to teach him how to become adept at being a noble, finances and in swordcraft in exchange for help in digging themselves out of their prison. Taking several more years to complete the education Dantès needs to exact his revenge it ends at the death of Faria and his mentor’s final gift to his student. The location of a treasure so vast that Dantès could retire to a life of peace and contemplation or fund his plans of vengeance.
The middle section of the film shows Dantès finding the treasure and remaking himself through his newfound wealth as the Count of Monte Cristo to better insinuate himself amongst the wealthy and noble-born his targets mingle in. With the help of a bandit whose life spares after a duel in Jacopo (Luis Guzman) the plans Dantès has worked on for years begin to bear fruit as he manipulates and fools Fernand, Villefort and Danglars into his confidence to better see to their downfall. It’s during this time he meets his former fiancee Mercedes (played by the ridiculously beautiful Dagmara Dominczyk), now Countess Mondego after being told of Edmond’s execution earlier in the film, and Fernand’s son Albert. The circumstances of how his former love having had a child and married to one of the men who had conspired against him brings a new complication to Dantès plans.
The last third of the film shows the culmination of Dantès and his elaborate plans to bring about the downfall of all those who had wronged him. While the plans, at times, strain the bonds of disbelief at actually having fooled and worked against his enemies the way the film makes the audience root for Dantès to succeed helps. This is a Dantès who comes off as noble despite being of commoner origins who we stand behind and support in his plans of vengeance. With the amount of wealth at his disposal it’s not too difficult to put oneself in the same shoes and not think of vengeance as well to strike a balance.
It’s a testament to the direction of filmmaker Kevin Reynolds that the film and it’s story never bogs down despite a story with many elaborate plots and secondary characters introduced midway. The fact that the film only borrows some of its complexity from an even more labyrinthine novel shows how the filmmakers actually had to simplify the story as to not make it so complex that it loses the bulk of its audience.
The Count of Monte Cristo also benefit from a strong cast led by Jim Caviezel in the titular role with Guy Pearce playing his former friend and betrayer Fernand Mondego and James Frain as the prosecutor Villefort. Caviezel plays his role as Dantès and as the Count of Monte Cristo as two different people with distinct personalities. There’s Dantès the earnest sailor who just wanted to get back to his love, Mercedes and then there’s the sophisticated and ruthless Count whose machinations would lead to the destruction of lives and reputations. It’s a mystery why Caviezel hasn’t become the star he surely was in the making and this film showed that he had the talent to become one of the industry’s new leading men. I blame Mel Gibson in casting him as Jesus in The Passion of the Christ for having put a curse on Caviezel.
Guy Pierce in the role of Fernand plays the conniving and remoreless villain role to the hilt. With an overbearing and effete noble bearing to his performance it was a character written to inspire hatred not just in its main protagonist but in the audience as well. Pearce knows what his roles represent and has fun playing up the role as main heavy.
Richard Harris as the priest Faria did his usual great work as the elder mentor to a younger man. It was a role he began to be known for starting with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator right up to his final mentor role as the wizard Dumbledore in the Harry Potter film franchise. It’s hard to explain to people that Harris was not always this wise and mentoring father figure, but one who played roles where he’d play womanizers, charming cads and roguish rebel.
The Count of Monte Cristo ended up being more fun than it should be with enough complexities in its storytelling that the film doesn’t dumb down too much the story it was adapted from. To be honest the only way one could truly adapt Dumas’ novel of revenge and redemption is through a long-form tv series. It is just that complex with so many characters that a film adaptation would just be too long or just unnecessarily crowded with characters the audience would care to know. It’s a good thing that the film by Kevin Reynolds was still able to keep to the spirit of the original source while whiling away the story down to its basic core.
It’s a film that plays like a throwback to the swashbuckling films from Hollywood of the 30’s and 40’s and it wouldn’t be too difficult to see Caviezel in the roles Errol Flynn once inhabited. There’s very little special effects in the film which adds more to this sense with swordfight scenes as expertly choreographed as any of the past. The Count of Monte Cristo, for some reason still unknown to me, continues to be the one thing that keeps airing on my birthday and the fact that it’s such a fun and thrilling film that I continue to watch it everytime my day of days roll around. Can’t wait for next year.