The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)

Originally Appeared in The Green Man Review.

The plot (for those unfamiliar with it): A sailor, Edmund Dantes, is betrayed and wrongly sent to a prison, so that his betrothed, Mercedes, thinking him dead, marries another man, and his father dies a shameful death. He survives to find an incredible treasure and take a new identity as the Count of Monte Cristo so that he may seek his revenge.

This version of the Dumas classic opens with putting to shore on Elba — an action-filled round of chase, sword-fighting, and the appearance of an imprisoned emperor Napoleon (Alex Norton) who seems, delightfully, to be more in charge than the British dragoons who hold him captive. Sadly for the filmmakers, it is Napoleon who is the most interesting character, and on second look one wishes the film was about him.

Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk) besides being visually pleasant has a fine moment in recognizing the Count as Edmund, another in telling her husband that she knows of his infidelity, and still another in telling her husband that she is not escaping with him. This is an actress who needs a powerful script and a more significant role. Frankly, I’d have had more fun seeing her in the lead role as Edmund Dantes.

Dantes’ servant Jacopo (Luis Guzman) steals the show with his comedic expressions and colorful anachronistic turns of phrase, having sworn loyalty to Edmund on his “dead relatives, even the ones that are not feeling too good.” Even with the support of Mercedes, the Abbe Faria (Richard Harris), an enjoyable Luigi Vampa (JB Blanc), and Jacopo, the lead role of Edmund Dantes (James Caviezel) is simply boring.

Caviezel seems chosen not for his dramatic range but for whatever sex appeal he might have demonstrated in Angel Eyes. His Dantes is best illustrated when after a gigantically impressive debut in a gilded balloon, wearing fabulous robes, with fireworks going off over his sumptuous palace of a home, his first and single word to Paris is a mild “Greetings” with a couple of blinks.

The film does poorly at portraying the villainy of Edmund’s best friend Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce) who, in this version, is his primary betrayer. We are given a psychologically shallow evil by an emotionally flat character.

It is the typical failure to come to grips with any genuine malevolence or anything beyond pop psychology. This is underscored by the usual-villain choice of Michael Wincott as Dorleac the sadistic warden of the Chateau d’If. The only thing missing was his eye patch as Guy of Gisborne in another Kevin Reynolds film, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The appearance of Wincott wasn’t even a surprise. After all, a similar role was his Rochefort in another film based on a Dumas classic, the 1993 Disney’s The Three Musketeers. He is a stock villain, and certainly more stock is put in his villainy than is truly warranted.

One would do better to rent the 1975 made-for-television movie of the same title, starring Richard Chamberlain and featuring Trevor Howard. It’s one of my personal favorites, and its presentation of Dumas’ tale is as lively and interesting as Valmont and almost as dramatically delicious as Dangerous Liaisons.

The revenge in the current version, central premise of the story, loses the thrilling gravity it carried in the 1975 version, partly because it is merely personal. In the Chamberlain version, Dantes is the hand of God to punish the evildoer with a righteous revenge, a weighty one. By contrast, this Dantes is interested only in personal satisfaction, and it costs the film some of its epic potential.

Here too, the emotional depravity of the cell is less convincing: merely props, uncut hair, and an annual beating. Nor is much time spent on Edmund’s travels at sea, though he claims to have seen the world. He almost immediately, it seems, shows up in Marseilles, not much older than before.

In the Chamberlain film, each revenge is a climax, and the finale is emotionally surprising. In this version, the drama waits hard on the end, when Edmund and Fernand have a predictable duel with a predictable outcome, followed by a too sweet campy ending and a slight almost mocking nod to justice in the fading final shot. Come the end, I could only exclaim “ick!” and get out my movie rental card to find something to wash the sickly taste out of my mouth.

The official website of the film is here.

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