The revolutionary idea behind the new film version of The Count of Monte Cristo, directed by Kevin Reynolds and adapted from Dumas’s novel by Jay Wolpert whose first feature this is, is to play it straight, making no attempt at the cute and clever little post-modern nudges and winks that we have come to expect as a natural part of any heroic swashbuckler since Richard Lester’s and George MacDonald Fraser’s uproarious Three Musketeers of 1973. For some reason, Reynolds seems to have decided that audiences have had enough of clever and ironic heroes and are now in the mood for something that looks a bit more like the traditional variety. I applaud his innovation — itself rather brave and heroic in its defiance of Hollywood’s conventional wisdom — but I fear that his tools are not quite up to the job.
Wolpert’s dialogue, for one thing, is inadequate to the seriousness that such a scenario calls for, and this is true even when it is straight out of Dumas. The reason why is not far to seek. There are certain things that could be said with a straight face in the early 19th century that cannot be said today. “Why? You’ve got to say why,” says Edmund Dantes (Jim Caviezel), for example, to his best friend Fernand, later Count Mondego (Guy Pearce), when the former realizes that the latter has betrayed him.
“Because you’re the son of a clerk,” says Fernand. “And I’m not supposed to want to be you.”
Actually, that usage of “I’m not supposed to. . .” would have sounded ridiculous in 1830 as well. But the culture has long overtaken Edmund’s insistence that “Death is too good for them,” meaning his enemies. “They must suffer as I have suffered,” he says, and means it, but his words just cannot be transplanted to the 21st century without unfortunate consequences. In the same way, as the wicked Dorleac (Michael Wincott), warden of Chateau D’If where Edmund is subsequently to be imprisoned for 13 years, calls on his flunkies to drag what he thinks is the body of a dead convict but actually is Edmund out of his dungeon, he says: “Come on. I haven’t got all day,” and then pauses. “Actually, I do. I have all the time in the world!” and he cackles maniacally. This now sounds as if it came out of a second-rate horror movie.
More even than the writing, the acting is problematical. Mr Caviezel as Dantes, later the Count of Monte Cristo, just hasn’t got the star quality to make a leading man of the sort that is wanted here. He is one of those sensitive-looking leading men, like Johnny Depp or Skeet Ulrich or Billy Crudup (now appearing as a soulful French communist in Charlotte Gray) who were so much in vogue in the 1990s and who seem, like Anthony Perkins, to want mothering. With the best writing and direction in the world, they could hardly be believable in the role of someone like Dantes whose honor is outraged and who lusts for vengeance.
Moreover, the idea that he is meant to reappear to people who knew him well after 13 years imprisoned in a dungeon in the Chateau d’If and another three years living as a pirate and be unrecognizable is completely ridiculous. Though rather a moony youth when he goes in down the dungeon and full of vim and vinegar and itching for revenge when he comes out, he is still unmistakably the same man — and far too nice for us to believe that he is ready to drink hot blood. This is not a trivial fault. Not only does much of the plot turn on the inability of his fiancée and his best friend to recognize him, but his transformation by suffering is really the essence of the story, the character study in revenge, and vital to another transformation at the end where, the thirst for revenge having been slaked, he turns back to a belief in God that he abandoned while in prison. Making these transformations believable — even partly believable — is the acid test for the film, and it fails it.
Nor is Caviezel the only disappointment. Mr Pearce as Mondego seems far too delighted to betray his best friend and marry his fiancée, the beautiful Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk), and so is somewhat out of synch with the general purpose of playing it straight. Perhaps he overacts like crazy lest for a moment we might suppose that Mondego’s wickedness not just for fun, in the old Dick Lester way. His performance would be right at home in any normal po mo movie, but here it is deeply subversive. Luis Guzmán as Dantes’s pirate sidekick, Jacopo, is also allowed too much humor, though as he is a servant and a rustic, it is not so destructive of the overall effect. As for Miss Dominczyk, she is much more decorative than persuasive as the driver of Mercedes’s grande passion, and so also looks too much like an escapee from The Three Musketeers or The Man in the Iron Mask.
Still, having said all this, however, I must add that the film is worth seeing because it doesn’t try to make a joke of the material, even though it sometimes succeeds in doing so in spite of itself, and because, remarkably, it takes seriously the claims both of honor and of religious belief which are central to the original story and so might be thought by a more fashion-conscious director to be hopelessly old-fashioned. Most extraordinarily, this basic earnestness turns out to be enough by itself to make the film both exciting and moving — and more or less where it is supposed to be exciting and moving. Or so I would say unless, which is possible, I was excited and moved simply by the thought that honor and religious belief might once again be taken seriously in Hollywood.