Count on it

Bringing justice to Alexandre Dumas on the silver screen.

A romance in every sense of the word filled with marvelous adventures, harrowing martyrdom and the suspense of love, The Count of Monte Cristo distills all this and more from Alexandre Dumas’ 19th-century literary classic.

Dumas, is following Shakespeare’s example here, rummages through history for the seed of his story: A Parisian police file yields the report of a young commoner engaged to marry a rich and beautiful girl. His envious friends play a devious practical joke that results in his imprisonment as a (Napoleon) Bonapartist spy. During the young man’s imprisonment in a royal dungeon, an elderly Italian priest reveals to him the location of an immense buried treasure. Finding the treasure after his release, he uses his new wealth to avenge himself on those who have wronged him, especially on the “friend” who married his fiancee. Dumas manages to create a 61-chapter novel with a cast of 71 characters from this relatively simple plot and saturates nearly every page with grandiose melodrama cut occasionally with understated irony.

But Dumas somehow gets away with it. Unfortunately, the same can’t often be said of those who’ve attempted to put his stories onscreen. Most cinematic adaptations of his work are ridiculous. The Man in the Iron Mask (1998) — richly colored, but bland — wasted the talents of a quintet of arguably great actors (Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Gérard Depardieu and Gabriel Byrne). At the same time. it grandly showcased both Dumas’ faults (such as the implausibility of his plots, action and dialogue) and its own (tepid romance, misfiring comedy and inept tear-jerking).

Taking on the 19th movie version of The Count of Monte Cristo was a romantic, against-all-odds quest in itself. Yet novice big-screen writer Jay Wolpert and veteran director Kevin Reynolds (One Eight Seven, Waterworld) find the treasures in The Count of Monte Cristo. Wolpert streamlines Dumas’ more than 500-page novel and downsizes his cast of characters by three-fourths, unraveling the tangled plot line of the wronged 19-year-old sailor, Edmond Dantès (James Caviezel, Angel Eyes), to make it taut, fast and shipshape.

Unlike The Man in the Iron Mask, Wolpert’s film essentializes the best of the novelist of the turbulent French Revolution and keeps the crumbling class system of the period as a major story element. Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce, Memento) schemes Dantès’ ruin not as a whim or just to covet his breathtakingly beautiful fiancee, Mércèdes (Dagmara Dominczyk, Rock Star), but because as the nobleman explains to Dantès, “you’re the son of a clerk and I’m not supposed to want to be you.”

Wolpert also features Dumas’ ironic twists. Dantès meets his mentor, Abbé Faria, who becomes his 19th-century Yoda, training him in philosophy and the sword (converting the dungeon of Chateau D’ If into a college of bars and stone). The old priest attempts to tunnel to freedom only to find himself in the unfortunate young man’s cell. The movie’s ultimate irony is, again to quote Mondego, “complicated”: Dantès rediscovers his innocence through the trials of revenge.

If one phrase could sum up Dantès’ character, it would be his persistent protestation, “I am innocent.” Because he is in every way: young, initially illiterate, so trusting in the power of righteousness and so guileless that he tells the Minister of Police, Villefort (James Frain, Where the Heart Is), the man who will falsely imprison him, “Ask me anything and I’ll tell you.”

Caviezel seems destined for this part. From his breakout role as Private Witt in legendary director Terrence Malick’s cinematic poem on the horrors of war, The Thin Red Line (1998), to the melodramatic thriller Angel Eyes (2001), he’s deepened even his smallest parts (such as homeless Jerry in Pay it Forward) with a brooding innocence intimating profound spirituality. Dantès gives him the opportunity to stretch his range as hard experience, education and training toughen and cultivate him into the Count of Monte Cristo. His character gracefully arcs from wide-eyed ingénue to sophisticated regal swashbuckler as we watch.

Director Kevin Reynolds is in the full bloom of the promise he showed in his first feature, a road movie set in the late Vietnam era called Fandango (1985). Reynolds has learned the ropes of period costume adventure after directing Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991); Rapa Nui (1994), an epic of 18th-century Easter Island; and the nearly career-ending, Road Warrior-on-the-high seas sci-fi epic Waterworld (1995). In his last film, One Eight Seven (1997), he left the past and the future behind to graphically show the trials of a high-school teacher besieged by gang violence. Throughout all of his work, class warfare and innocence surviving harsh experience are major themes, making him a natural for this picture.

A classic story of romance, melodrama and tragedy, The Count of Monte Cristo is rich in well-executed irony.

E-mail James Keith La Croix at [email protected].

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