|Count of Monte Cristo, The|
|Written by Mel Odom|
|Tuesday, 10 September 2002|
Chapter 1 opens with a longboat out on a misty sea as men row through the night, hoping to reach land and find help for their sick captain. The surround sound system pulls the viewer into the boat, putting the splashes all around as if we are sitting there pulling oars as part of the crew. The land that Second Mate Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel) finds is the Isle of Elba, where the British incarcerated Napoleon the first time England took the emperor into custody.
The tense scene continues ashore as Dantes tries to attract the attention of the uniformed British soldiers. He fires a flintlock pistol into the air, introducing the viewer to the unique percussion cap/powder detonation double explosion the firearms of that time produced, and this remains a constant throughout the movie. The sound is a ripping basso of thunder that lights up the subwoofer, then echoes through the sound system. The British soldiers attack immediately, drawing swords. The ring of steel against steel issues from the surround sound system, as if the battle is taking place around the viewer. In minutes, none other than Napoleon Bonaparte himself saves Dantes and Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce), Dantes’ lifelong best friend, from the British.
Later, after helping Dantes with the sick captain and throwing his weight around against his British jailers, Napoleon asks Dantes to accompany him. In Chapter 2, as Napoleon asks Dantes to take a letter to Marseilles for him, the surround sound system pushes the echo of the wind over the island’s harbor directly into the room with the viewer, punctuating it with the hollow spangs of boots striking the wet stone walkways. The musical score comes to the forefront at the end of the chapter, ushering in the next and amping up the sweeping audio packed onto the DVD. The music, grand and simple, becomes part of the overall experience, intensified by the surround.
Chapter 3 presents a terrific visual image of the Marseilles port, although it was actually shot in Malta. White stone buildings face the harbor. Horses clop along the cobblestones, coming from the right and crossing the sound system through the center speaker(s) to the left main. Voices of passersby and townspeople become a constant undercurrent to the action in the streets, bouncing through the main speakers while the center speaker(s) carry the conversation of the actors. While Dantes is called up for a meeting with his employer, Fernand meets up with Dantes’ beloved Mercedes (Dagmara Domincyzk), who has come to the docks to meet Dantes. Fernand squires Mercedes away and puts the moves on her while the hollow boom and crash of the sea in the background fill the cove and the subwoofer. Fernand’s jealousy shows through the sheer grace and skill of Jay Wolpert’s screenplay, and that emotion becomes even stronger when Dantes hurries back to Mercedes with the news that he has been appointed the new captain of the ship to replace the old one that has died.
The innocent and deep relationship between Mercedes and Dantes is set up in Chapter 4 with the accompaniment of beautiful ocean shots and shoreline scenery, underscored by a hauntingly sad stringed composition. Later that day, Fernand meets up with Danglar, the man who was first mate of the ship and got passed over for promotion in favor of Dantes. The dock noises in the background as Fernand and Danglar plot and scheme echoes from the main speakers while conversation is carried by the center speaker(s).
The boom of the door opening in Dantes’ father’s house in Chapter 5 sets off the subwoofer and offers seriously evil portents to come. In the office of Magistrate Villefort (James Frain), Dantes is accused of being a traitor to France for transporting the letter from Napoleon. Dantes is an innocent, unable to even read what the letter says. He names the man who was supposed to receive the letter, which Villefort burns, then has Dantes led to a carriage with an iron door. When the iron door bangs shut, echoing through the surround system and setting off the subwoofer, we know that Dantes’ good fortune has ended. The coach’s wheels clatter across the cobblestones as the cameras pan back to show a beautiful view of the Old World city.
In Chapter 6, the clopping hooves of the horse pulling the prison coach cross a bridge, traveling from right to left. Dantes stages a quick-witted and daring escape and makes his way to Fernand’s estate with the guards hot on his heels. While Dantes is there, Fernand betrays him, revealing the hostile jealousy he has always felt for Dantes.
In Chapter 7, Dantes is taken to the Chateau D’If, the heartbreaking prison where France sends all of the prisoners the government is ashamed of and wants to forget. The oars dip into the ocean as the tides smash against the harsh, forbidding rock cliff the prison stands on. Later, in the labyrinth tunneled through the rocky foundations of the cliff, the voices of Dantes’ jailers echo and give a distinct impression of how large and distant this place is from anything kind or civilized. Men’s cries bounce from the walls. In his cell, Dantes sees a message carved into the wall that the warden reads to him. The message is something that will haunt Dantes for the 13 years he is in the prison: “God will give me justice.”
Chapters 8-13 continue the story of Dantes’ incarceration and rebirth. The desolation alone weighs heavily on the viewer due to the quiet yet cavernous noises that roll from the surround sound system. A brief leap of hope comes to the viewer and Dantes alike as a bird enters his cell through the iron-barred window. The bird’s wings flutter, and the sound ducks quickly through the main and center speaker in counterpoint to the darting movements. In Chapter 10, Abbe Faria (Richard Harris), the man who will change Dantes’ life forever, arrives in a chilling scene. Tense and frightening music peals through the sound system as Faria resembles nothing more than a corpse rising from its grave in breaking through the floor of Dantes’ cell. The clatter of stones against the stone floor rings out sharply. As the two men get to know each other, the score turns again to strings, providing a slow, hopeful backdrop as we watch Dantes start to come alive again, beginning to shape himself into a stronger man and to concentrate on the vengeance he wants.
Rising, dramatic music accompanies Chapter 14’s daring escape from the prison, and the sound hammers from the surround sound system, firing up the subwoofer. Outside, the sea spray rolls through the main speakers, giving the impression that we are facing the sea alongside Dantes.
Chapter 15 opens with a Spanish guitar piece that serves as the prelude to Dantes’ meeting with the band of smugglers he travels with for three years before journeying back to Marseilles.
From this point on, the film becomes an emotional roller coaster ride filled with twists and turns. The pomp and pageantry of the sets claim the viewer’s attention, and prove so riveting to the eye that the ear doesn’t realize it’s being royally treated by the musical score. In particular, Chapter 18 provides uplifting compositions that reach deeply into the viewer and stir primitive emotions in a grand way as Dantes establishes his new identity. Even a person who does not like classical music may be swept away on the tide of melodies that the sound system unleashes in full-bore presentation.
At the same time, scenes and characters are relayed without music, as in Chapter 19. The voices across as quiet and very contained in the early morning air. Steel hisses and rasps against steel, then the thrust that sinks through flesh and blood to the beating heart beneath is a solid, dulled hammerlike blow that thuds through the subwoofer, a finality that foreshadows another duel to come later in the movie.
The DVD’s special features section begins with “An Epic Reborn,” showcasing featurettes about the book “The Count of Monte Cristo” and an homage to author Dumas. Dumas’ story is almost as amazing as those of the fictional characters he created. The pieces on the Napoleonic world and the production design are awe-inspiring – they’re also revealing about all the work and negotiations involved to get the sets. For viewers interested in swordfighting, the featurette on the blade work is absolutely amazing, witty and insightful.
The deleted scenes show a depth of character that is definitely missed in the final version of the movie, but the film does well without them. The alternate version where Villefort actually shoots himself gives the film a much different perspective as well. Director Kevin Reynolds’ audio commentary offers a tremendous amount of insight about filmmaking in general and the decisions made during this film and why they were made. Reynolds’ voice is easy to listen to, and he had a good memory for the problems he had to deal with, as well as the steps he and his team took to solve those problems. The director is opinionated and interesting, and reveals that the actor playing Napoleon wore a prosthetic nose, which is actually kind of shocking because it looks so real.
“The Count Of Monte Cristo” is a definite audience pleaser. Not only can audiences of all ages see it because harsh language and sexual situations are not in the film, but also all the motivations of the characters and the plot twists are understandable and, indeed, ones that most viewers would be tempted to make themselves, making the story incredibly accessible. Collectors of extravagant period-piece movies and classic novels will want to add this DVD to their shelves, but this version of “The Count Of Monte Cristo” will probably find its way onto the shelves of several film buffs and general audiences as well. It’s simply a great tale told extremely well. The DVD is definitely strong in appearance and especially in sound for those with full-blown home entertainment systems.