The Count of Monte Cristo

In 1814, just off the coast of Elba, shipmates and best friends Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel) and Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce) help escort their ailing captain to shore seeking help. Even though their captain dies, Dantes and Mondego get to meet exiled French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who asks Dantes to secretly deliver a confidential letter for him.

Believing that he is doing the Emperor an innocent favor, Dantes agrees, never once thinking that his simple gesture of returned kindness would lead to his downfall, or that his best friend would be the one who would betray him.

Dantes and Mondego share a lot of history, but they also share a love for the same woman, Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk), who favors Dantes and his simple life. Mondego is not only jealous of Dantes, but despises the fact that he seems charmed. Instead of being fired for landing on Elba, Dantes is promoted and given his own ship, a luxury out of the reach of Mondego.

With so much jealousy and hatred brewing in Mondego, it’s only a matter of time before he betray his best friend, which is exactly what he does in “The Count of Monte Cristo,” a rousing adaptation of the Alexander Dumas tale of love, betrayal and revenge. Unlike the recent, tedious “The Musketeer” and the dreary Leonardo DiCaprio “The Man in the Iron Mask,” “Monte Cristo” is a case of filmmakers getting Dumas right.

Director Kevin Reynolds and screenwriter Jay Wolpert understand that great literature doesn’t require anything more than respect when bringing it to the screen. “The Count of Monte Cristo” is one of the most faithful renditions of a Dumas work in years, a celebration of great storytelling and old fashioned filmmaking.

Too many recent films seem influenced by other recent films, creating movies that reflect the times but are instantly disposable. Honestly, what were the filmmakers of “The Musketeer” thinking when they incorporated Hong Kong style action into the story? They must have thought that by doing so they would attract that all important youth market, who usually condone period pieces.

Nothing beats a good story, and that’s exactly what “The Count of Monte Cristo” has going for it. Wolpert doesn’t approach Dumas from the outside, he works from within, taking the heart of the story and adding the occasional cinematic flourish to help advance the story. His script is possibly one of the most straightforward takes on Dumas, while director Reynolds trusts the performers and script enough to let them run with the story. Reynolds never feels compelled to mimic the current state of cinema, preferring long, detailed shots instead of rapid fire editing.

I’m always suspicious when directors feel the need to use razzle and dazzle instead of just tell the story. A good story doesn’t need any smoke and mirrors. “The Count of Monte Cristo” felt like the sort of movie they used to make back in the thirties and forties. Except for a handful of digital shots, what you see is what you get, and what you get is a rousing adventure and love story that is just as timely today as it was when Dumas wrote it.

Jim Caviezel, who rose to prominence in Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line,” is excellent as the trusting and good natured Dantes, a man of honor who only wants the best for his friends and himself. It’s the actors best role since “Frequency,” a rich and rewarding performance filled with noble turns and great determination.

It’s important that we believe in Dantes’ sincerity, and Caviezel makes the task an easy one. When he’s betrayed by his best friend and sent to the island prison fortress Chateau D’If, Dantes goes through many transformations, and Caviezel makes each step memorable. Just when he’s ready to give up hope, Dantes is saved by Abbe Faria (Richard Harris), an old priest who has tunneled into his cell.

In exchange for helping him tunnel to freedom, Faria agrees to school Dantes in the arts of fighting, writing and reading. Both get an education over the years, but Dantes gets a real life lesson when he finally escapes and returns home to Marseilles, only to learn that Mondego has ruined his family and took Mercedes as his bride.

Using the fortune and education left to him by Faria, Dantes becomes the Count of Monte Cristo, a mysterious stranger who seduces the locals with his extreme wealth and extravagance. Dantes real desire is to revenge his betrayal by Mondego and the local magistrate Villefort (James Frain), who conspired to send him to prison.

The film has a great villain in Pearce’s Mondego, who believes the only way he can win Mercedes’ heart is through lies and deceit. Pearce, so powerful in last years “Memento,” does a splendid job of creating an evil character who doesn’t feel the need to twirl his mustache to get the point across. James Frain is equally despicable as Villefort, a zebra willing to change his stripes for the right price.

You can understand the attraction both men feel for Mercedes, especially as played by the lovely Dagmara Dominczyk. The Polish actress doesn’t play Mercedes as a victim, but as a woman of hope who has never stopped loving Dantes. Look in her eyes every time she stands next to Mondego and all you see is duty. There’s no love or respect there. She’s doing what is best for her son, not herself.

Harris almost steals the film as Faria, a man of wisdom and regret who sees some sort of redemption in Dantes. The middle of the film benefits immensely from Harris’ participation, and his quasi-Yoda role is one of his best. I was also impressed with Michael Wincott’s dutiful prison warden, and Luis Guzman’s Jacopo, a pirate who becomes Dantes best friend and confidant.

Reynolds, the director of “Waterworld,” not only keeps “The Count of Monte Cristo” afloat, he elevates it with true passion. Every frame of the film looks perfect. The period production design of Mark Geraghty looks absolutely authentic through Andrew Dunn’s camera, while Ed Shearmur’s musical score emphasizes the drama and action without showing off.

Hopefully the all important youth market will find “The Count of Monte Cristo” to their liking. I would hate to think that something so exciting and fun is just an aberration.

THE FULL MONTE Betrayal and revenge cross swords in Dumas swashbuckler


Jim Caviezel, Guy Pearce, Richard Harris, Dagmara Dominczyk, James Frain, Michael Wincott, Luis Guzman. Directed by Kevin Reynolds. Rated PG-13. 122 Minutes.


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