Koch Vision // 1998 // 400 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // January 11th, 2006
"Do you think I like being Monte Cristo? I would be afraid to be his
friend, Bertuccio. He is terrifying, ruthless, and cold. I didn't want to become
that man. To be Edmond Dantèes was enough."
-- Gérard Depardieu as Edmond Dantès, better known as the Count of Monte Cristo
Is revenge sweet, or is it as bitter as hemlock? In The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas père explored that moral question even as he concocted a stirring swashbuckler, its added depth keeping the 1845-46 serial fresh for nearly two centuries.
"I'm number 34, but before, my name was Dantes," a prisoner at Chateau d'If tells Abbé Faria (Georges Moustaki, Livingstone), the fellow prisoner who has slipped in from a neighboring cell. When he's told that it's February 11, 1833, he realizes, "I've been down here 18 years." It's not the brief interruption Dantès (Gérard Depardieu, The Man in the Iron Mask) was expecting when he was arrested during a party years ago. "My friends, enjoy yourselves. I'll be right back," he recalls announcing to the crowd, including his love Mercedès. Trouble is, he unwittingly carried a letter from Napoleon about an assassination plot. Worse yet, the letter implicated the father of the prosecutor, de Villefort. "In this stinking hole, I haven't stopped turning the events in every direction," Dantès tells his new friend as he recounts the events.
Dantès uses Faria's death to make his escape in the deceased's body bag, carried out by his jailers and tossed into the sea. He soon stops at Monte Cristo to pick up the treasure that Faria told him of, not to mention the first of several new names. With his newfound riches, he plots his revenge -- er, justice -- on de Villefort, and the others who betrayed him, as the Count of Monte Cristo.
Soon he's a major part of Paris society, befriending the very people who betrayed him -- the Count of Morcerf (Jean Rochefort, Pret-a-Porter), de Villefort (Pierre Arditi, The Mystery of the Yellow Room), and Baron Danglars (Michel Aumont, Roundabout). He even renews his acquaintance with the lovely, now married Mercedès (Ornella Muti, Last Run), who doesn't even recognize him -- or does she? Either way, you know he's going to stick around to pursue her once again, since Muti has been lauded as the most beautiful woman in the world.
Even as an angel of vengeance, Depardieu's Count of Monte Cristo proves a worthy hero. He speaks eloquently for the dignity of prisoners, makes impoverished people like an elderly telegraph operator wealthy for their roles in his schemes, saves Valentine de Villefort -- the daughter of his enemy -- from a mysterious poisoner, and dispenses the rough justice of a Robin Hood toward nobles whose deceits go beyond his false arrest.
Dumas's story isn't exactly realistic, since most people in Dantès's position would have taken the jewels and run off to Italy, end of story. Since his Dantès isn't most people, it gives Dumas the opportunity to filter questions of morality through Dantès's troubled mind. While you could watch the entire miniseries without pondering morality once, those who do consider those questions will find The Count of Monte Cristo richer than the typical action fare. It's filled with lines that are at once humorous and more subtly ironic, such as a dinner guest's complaint to the Count after suffering through three days in jail: "You can't imagine what I endured in seventy-two hours." Even with direction that emphasizes the moral questions, the escapes, races against time, and challenges to duels will keep you entertained.
Gérard Depardieu slips into each of Dantes's identities like a chameleon, whether he's playing a prisoner, a nobleman, or a humble priest. His mannerisms in each role are convincing enough to fuzz over concerns like, "Why doesn't everybody recognize Edmond Dantès right away?" One realizes that a real Dantès would not move as seamlessly in these disguises, but his shifts from prisoner to noble to priest symbolize the workings of Dantès's mind as he seeks justice after being falsely imprisoned. He makes his anger clear with his readings of lines such as, "I do not seek God, Father Barnabe. I came to warn him that I am replacing him," even as I heard them in French and read them in English subtitles.
While it's still Depardieu's show (note that son Guillaume plays the young Edmond in flashbacks and daughter Julie plays Valentine de Villefort), the cast is strong throughout. As Bertuccio, the Count of Monte Cristo's servant and partner in revenge, actor Sergio Rubini (The Talented Mr. Ripley) proves a worthy debating partner, as Dantès considers dilemmas such as whether to rescue Albert, the son of his once-beloved Mercedès, from bandits. Florence Darel (Napoleon) plays Camille, the Count's lover, who gradually learns his secrets, yet still puzzles over his mysterious actions, with a sweet bewilderment on the surface that masks true passion and understanding. Keep an eye on Hélène Vincent (Lucky Punch) as Heloïse as well, for plot reasons as well as for her performance.
This 1998 miniseries version, made for European TV, comes in four parts on two discs, each with two chapters that run about an hour and forty minutes. The transfer here shows off the movie's dramatically contrasting visuals as it shifts between shadowy interiors and bright exterior scenes, most noticeably early on, as the warders carry Dantès, in the bag, from the dank prison into the light of day and freedom, and in the cave on the island of Monte Cristo, with the light growing as Dantès realizes where the jewels Faria told him about will be found. Overlapping sounds, mixing ambient noise such as children's cries in the street and bird calls with the background score, blend effectively in the stereo track; the period score is stirring enough to add to the story's excitement.
One quibble here is that the light-colored subtitles get lost in a few bright scenes; multiple color schemes for the words might have done better. It also appears that the early parts of the novel were condensed somewhat, but at nearly seven hours, that's understandable.
For a dissenting view, I'll refer you to retired Judge Nicholas Sylvain's review of an earlier release of this miniseries. You'll find that the list price is lower now, but this release lacks even the minimal extras of its predecessor.
If you just plain hate subtitled movies, you probably won't change your mind, but Depardieu's version of The Count of Monte Cristo is good fun that's worth the long running time and occasional hard-to-read subtitle.
Not guilty. Edmond Dantès is free to go and to taste life at last.
Review content copyright © 2006 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 400 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Wikipedia on The Count of Monte Cristo
* The Count of Monte Cristo at Project Gutenberg
* DVD Verdict: Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, Chapter 1
* DVD Verdict: The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)
* DVD Verdict: The Count of Monte Cristo (1998)