Reviewed Jun 12, 2012
This review reportedly contains spoilers.
I can handle the truth.
Robert Cettl said:
French author Alexandre Dumas is responsible for several literary classics that have religiously been adapted by Hollywood. Indeed, every successive generation seems to produce its own re-interpretations, revisions and arguable simplifications of these popular works. These works are immediately recognizable – The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask and The Count of Monte Cristo. The first of these especially has entered popular culture’s reservoir of famous titles. It is no surprise that the last decade saw new versions of the Dumas tales, with two versions of his most famous story, Stephen Herek’s 1993 Disney production of The Three Musketeers and Peter Hyams’ ill-fated 2001 Hong-Kong action inspired The Musketeer. Director Randall Wallace (not long before he did We Were Soldiers) tried his hand at directing Leonardo diCaprio in a 1998 version of The Man in the Iron Mask. With these works renewing popular interest, it was just a matter of time before Hollywood got around to the last of the three, and now Kevin Reynolds’ version of The Count of Monte Cristo is now released, neatly rounding out this generations re-visions. All of these titles are available on region 4 DVD.
The well known story of The Count of Monte Cristo concerns Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel), an innocent and naïve young man, who is betrayed by his childhood friend, Mondego (Guy Pearce) when Dantes tries to deliver a letter from an exiled Napoleon Bonaparte on Elba to a sympathizer in Paris. Dantes is imprisoned in a remote prison, Chateau d’If, for many years in solitary confinement. One day, another prisoner tunnels through into his cell. The two of them become friends and the older prisoner (Richard Harris) gives Dantes the education and fighting-training he lacked. When the old man dies, Dantes escapes with his treasure map, intent on revenge. He retrieves the treasure and establishes himself as the title count, thereby systematically setting about his vengeance on those that had taken his life, and his betrothed, from him. It seems that his desire for revenge may threaten to overwhelm his moral balance when he uses Mondego’s son in a plot to get at his archenemy. However, his pleasure in revenge is fleeting, almost a chore in the name of justice although there is one note of taunting satisfaction in the way he denies a villain’s suicidal escape.
As a director, Kevin Reynolds is better known for his association with actor Kevin Costner, and his involvement in two notorious bad movies, Rapa-Nui and Waterworld. Here he returns to the well-paced superficial gloss that he achieved in Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves. While the original Dumas book was reportedly a more morally ambiguous tale, where revenge ultimately brings no real pleasure, Reynolds transforms his movie into yet another populist story about the joy of revenge. In the process any moral ambiguity is jettisoned and avoided as if merely an unnecessary complication in an otherwise simple progression. Instead Reynolds concentrates on the systematic means by which a poor, innocent, illiterate man is robbed of that innocence and is transformed into a vengeful, sophistical but bitter man of means. He turns the story into a vision of the process of Experience ending Innocence through persecution and torture, then guiding it through despair until the desire for revenge disciplines the mind. The film’s first half, dedicated to this transformation, as despair finds a new purpose, is most complex. However, once Caviezel escapes, the film concentrates on his plan for revenge and as it avoids moral complexity has nowhere to go beyond the inevitable comeuppance. On that level it is entertaining.
Although Caviezel carries the change well enough, he never carries the sense of a consumed and troubled obsessive. We sense his burden in part, but his righteous cause is never questioned or threatened, indeed enshrined in stone in his prison cell where it is engraved “God will give me Justice”. Although Caviezel despairs of God, the film’s religiosity emerges when he regains his faith in God through being granted revenge. Vengeance is thus a just purification of the wronged, and Caviezel remains a good soul. Correspondingly Pearce’s villain especially is so slimy and evil that it reduces the film to a simplistic, even caricaturish, audience-pleasing tale of good triumphing over evil. Pearce’s villainy rests in his sins of pride and envy but director Reynolds makes sure that Caviezel’s revenge is a just reward for his suffering. He even makes sure that Caviezel does not show too much pleasure in his acts. Indeed, Reynolds transforms vengeance completely into justice, ultimately deliberately choosing to settle for a conventional superficiality. This turns the film into a disposable entertainment, ultimately unmemorable.
All complexity (even the despair that must come from solitary confinement) is glossed over in the name of pace and visual sophistication. The DVD transfer carries this well. Although at times the use of primary colours seems forced, they are mostly clear, with dark blues and deep blacks in some nightlife scenes. Overall, it is a purposeless effect, all highly professional gloss. The bleakly lit dungeon scenes are the most impressive, and the hint of constricting tunnels well rendered. But once it returns to an opulent colour and costume extravaganza, the film becomes familiar. Some backgrounds falter now and then with colour clarity. However, it does have a sense (in costume, location and colour) of the trappings of a French aristocratic lifestyle, neatly contrasting wide open spaces to the dungeon scenes and contrasting Caviezel’s movement through space before and after his ordeal as a man who has acquired purpose and renewed self-definition. One scene of his revenge, a steam bath sequence with a golden tint, stands out well, the texture of the steam registering well on the transfer. Although the visuals are subtly more oppressive as well as ornate after the protagonist’s ordeal, this stylistic trait is only a hint of the moral burden the character carries.
The sound transfer again is an example of functional professionalism, demonstrating the wonders of Hollywood’s technical skill more than it serves any distinct design. Of course the swords clanking carry the right note and there is a full spatial sense to the ambient design. It is especially good at travelling sounds during the brief horse and coach rides. Voices are distinct. However, the sound of screaming, tortured voices as Caviezel enters his prison, whilst effective, have a (presumably unintended) comical sense just short of Monty Python. The spatial sense of aural spectacle is most evident in the party scene where the Count makes his first appearance to the aristocracy. The mannered vocal delivery of Pearce especially becomes a kind of running joke through the film. The sounds of the sea carry a sense of freedom in the instances in which they are best used, as much of the film contrasts constriction and liberation.