`Monte Cristo'

COUNT ON

There's less swashbuckling, but performances by Jim Caviezel and Richard Harris make this a great adventure.

January 25, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Alexandre Dumas' 1844 page-turner The Count of Monte Cristo might be an indestructible story.

It stirred movie and TV audiences when done with diverse casting choices from Robert Donat to Richard Chamberlain and Gerard Depardieu, with remarkably different adaptations ranging from the fable-like to the historical and political. And it clicks again in this well-paced action-movie version, graced with a heartfelt performance from Jim Caviezel as Edmond Dantes, the self-made Count; a rip-roaring roguish turn from the knowing - almost all-knowing - Guy Pearce (Memento) as his nemesis, Fernand; and a sublimely funny and moving one from Richard Harris as Dantes' mentor, Fario.

The moviemakers respect the mythic allure of the odyssey of Dantes, a big-hearted Marseilles sailor. Manipulators like Fernand envy him and cook up an accusation of treason that lands him in the bowels of a political prison - where a wizard-like prisoner, the aging Fario, provides education and fighting skills, the means to escape and the wealth and power to win justice. Out of Dumas' welter of material (court intrigue, smuggling, treasure-hunting, erotic rivalry and revenge) director Kevin Reynolds and screenwriter Jay Wolpert spin their own yarn of a befouled friendship. Their new fabric has surprising stitchwork. It holds together over the course of a breezy two-hour-plus running time.

This production is the Edmond-Fernand story: in the book, Fernand is just a friend and jilted courtier of Dantes' fiancee, Mercedes (played here by Damara Dominczyk), but Reynolds and Wolpert make Edmond and Fernand a pair of friends from childhood. Pearce and Caviezel help them cook up an Othello-Iago sort of anti-chemistry.

In this movie, Fernand is an aristocrat graced with fighting ability and worldly canniness who can't abide any low-born honest bloke, even an old chum like Edmond, rising to a captaincy and winning the beautiful Mercedes.

And this fresh material resonates with Dumas' novel. In my favorite line from Dumas' book, one of Fernand's co-conspirators muses, "Robespierre represented a `lowering' equality: he brought kings to the guillotine, while Napoleon represented an `elevating' quality: he raised the people to the level of the throne."

Edmond lands on Elba to try to save his ailing captain, and his agreement to deliver a letter of Napoleon's back in France enables Fernand to frame him. Though the movie scants the cataclysms of the emperor's exile and the fall and return of his Empire - Napoleon is used as little more than a plot device - the tensions of the Napoleonic era ripple through it.

Reynolds tries to work out everything in physical terms. On a small scale, he symbolizes the turns of the central friendship in a chess king that Edmond and Fernand pass between them, and marks Mercedes' devotion in a ring of string she never removes from her finger. On the large scale, he chooses locations for Marseilles, for the Chateau d'If prison and for the treasure island of Monte Cristo that have a geometric majesty and bring a hint of grandeur to the characters' pettiest struggles.

The director doesn't overdo the swashbuckling: Each fight serves a narrative purpose, and the bouts are based on slashing speed rather than outrageous acrobatics. Andrew Dunn, a great cinematographer (as you can also see in Gosford Park), gives the most expansive images a storybook luminosity, and he and Reynolds play virtuoso games with perspective. The movie's visual theme might be "grabbing for goals beyond your reach."

This version's slick externalizing of every feeling may be what robs it of the stirring emotional residue of the 1934 Donat movie, which achieved a similar pace not by balancing action and dialogue but by keeping the Count at the center of a series of quick, witty confrontations. Yet images from this movie, such as the Count gliding down to a nocturnal bash in a balloon, are both outsize and memorable.

So are the central performances. At the start, Caviezel has some of Donat's liquidity and sensitivity - he's the perfect target for Pearce's Fernand, who's so whip-like and self-lacerating he plays like a good sadistic joke. As Edmond evolves, Caviezel draws on hidden resources and emerges with an unnerving intensity. Even better, Harris comes through with the magic he lacked in the Harry Potter movie. His Fario, a soldier turned priest, knows himself and society so well that nothing can surprise him, and anything can interest or amuse him. Yes, Harris brings gravity to the picture, but he's also blessedly silly. Every laugh-line and wrinkle is expressive. Somehow, in his entrance, he manages to win big laughs even when you see only the top and back of his head.

The Count of Monte Cristo

Starring Jim Caviezel, Guy Pearce and Richard Harris

Directed by Kevin Reynolds

Released by Touchstone

Rated PG-13 (violence, some sensuality)

Running time 131 minutes

Sun score ***

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