Monday, March 28, 2011

“Why not just kill them? I'll do it! I'll run up to Paris - bam, bam, bam, bam. I'm back before week's end. We spend the treasure. How is this a bad plan?”

Right, so its been a while since I’ve complained about a film, and it looks like the 2002 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas pére’s classic, The Count of Monte Cristo might get my English Major hackles up. Let’s explore.

For those of you who didn’t pay attention in 9th Grade English, we follow the story of one Edmond Dantés (James Caviezel), an idealistic and naïve French sailor living in the early 19th Century. He’s got a good job, a fiancée that loves him and solid friends, or so he thinks. After a fateful landing at Elba and meeting the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte, a small conspiracy begins brewing against Dantés. After the return to Marseilles, Fernand Mondego, the Count de Morcerf (Guy Pearce) (who in the movie is a close friend of Dantés and fellow crewman and not just a romantic rival) and Danglars (Albie Woodington) (who is jealous of Dante’s quick rise past him in the ship’s hierarchy) bring the illiterate Dantés before J.F. (oddly enough not Gerard as in the book) Villefort (James Frain). Dantés was given a letter by Napoleon to deliver to someone on the mainland. That someone is Villefort’s father. Villefort confiscates the letter, burns it and has Dantés imprisoned for life in the sinister Château d’If because Villefort’s career would be in danger if his father were to be outed as a Bonapartist.

While in prison, Dantés meets the eccentric, but brilliant Abbé Faria (played with great humor by Richard Harris), an Italian priest who was imprisoned long ago and forgotten. Faria teaches him to read, to speak several languages, to fence and other skills. He also tells him of the location of a buried treasure that, if found, would make him wealthy beyond imagination. Faria dies and Dantés escapes the prison, runs afoul of bandits, recruits one named Jacopo (played with homicidal glee by Luis Guzman), finds the gold and returns to France intent on finding out what happened to his former love Mercedes (for some reason called Iguanada and not Herrera) (Dagmara Dominczyk) and enacting a carefully constructed revenge against the three men who wronged him so.

And that’s the short version of the plot. What? It's a thick book.

Directed by Kevin Reynolds (who also did Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and the legendarily maligned Waterworld), the movie hits all the right visual notes for a modern period costume drama. Lots of fancy costumes and dresses, interesting locations and the occasional impressive swordfight. There’s even a nice bit of spectacle as Dantés makes his first official appearance as the Count of Monte Cristo via hot-air balloon.

Based on the novel “Le Comte de Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas pére. Screenplay by Jay Wolpert. As you can see from the plot description above, the book is densely layered and translating all 1,312 pages to a single movie would be a horrible task for any writer. So cuts were made, some characters folded into others, some characters, like Danglars, were diminished and others, like Fernand, elevated. Understandable, and for the most part, the changes are acceptable. Cavizel does a very nice job of transforming our hero from a young idealist to a bitter manipulator. It’s really the end of the movie where things kind of lose it. Without spoiling it too much, instead of patiently exacting his revenge on all of his enemies and realizing that his thirst for revenge is spilling over and destroying the lives of innocent people, the realization of which forces the Count to quietly re-learn mercy and move on with his life, instead we get a knock-down, slam-bang swordfight between Dantés and Fernand over Mercedes and a surprise revelation as to the identity of somebody’s father.

While yes, it’s a nice swordfight, it kind of wraps things up too nice and tidy and removes the deliciously cold revenge that Edmond takes out on Fernand in the book. I suppose it was also done to keep Edmond from going into some pretty unlikable actions (which is arguably the point of the book: Edmond goes to some pretty nasty lengths in his quest for revenge and only really repents for them after he’s seen what he’s become). Still, I appreciate a nice swordfight, so that makes the ending doubly irritating.

Original music by Edward Shearmur (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), the soundtrack is quite good, filled with sweeping orchestral flourishes and lots of moody movements.

Maybe it’s the weather, maybe I’m just not in the mood for vitriol, but I can’t call the 2002 The Count of Monte Cristo a bastardization of all that is good and holy in literature. The music is good, the visuals are good, the cast are all very good. The ending is very, very dumb, and that rankles me a bit. Still, I can take comfort in knowing that somewhere, somewhen, a lazy high schooler got his information about this story from the movie instead of the book and did horribly on a test or essay.

Some days, it’s the little things like that that matter.

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