“THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO” (1934) Review

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“THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO” (1934) Review

I have seen only two versions of Alexandre Dumas père’s 1845 novel, “The Count of Monte Cristo” in my past – the 1975 television version with Richard Chamberlain and the 2002 Disney film with James Cavielzel. While reading a good number of articles about the movie versions of the novel, I came across numerous praises for the 1934 adaptation that starred Robert Donat. And since I happened to like Dumas’ story so much, I decided to see how much I would like this older version. 

Set between the last months of the Napoleonic Wars and the 1830s, “THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO” told the story of merchant sailor Edmond Dantès becomes a victim of French political machinations and personal jealousy after his dying captain Leclère, a supporter of the exiled Napoléon I, charges him to deliver a letter from the exiled former emperor to an unknown man in Marseilles. Thanks to the first mate Danglars, who is jealous of Dantès’ rapid rise to captain; an ambitious city magistrate named Raymond de Villefort, Jr., who wants to stem a possible family scandal, due to his father being identified as the man to whom Napoléon had written the letter; and his best friend Fernand Mondego, who is in love with Dantès’ fiancée, Mercedes de Rosas; Dantès ends up on an island prison called Château d’If. There, he meets a fellow prisoner, a priest and a former soldier in Napoleon’s army named Abbé Faria. Faria educates Dantès and informs the latter a fabulous hidden treasure before he is killed in a cave-in. Dantès escapes from the prison and befriends a group of smugglers that include a thief named Jacopo. They find the treasure that Faria had talked about and Edmond uses it to establish the persona of the Count of Monte Cristo. He hopes to avenge himself against those who had betrayed him – Danglars, Villefort, Mondego. He also learns that Mercedes had married Mondego not long after his imprisonment.

Many critics have labeled this movie as the best adaptation of Dumas’ novel. Is it the best? It all depends on individual preference. I do know that I enjoyed “THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO” very much. The movie benefited from solid writing by director Rowland V. Lee, Philip Dunne and Dan Totheroh, despite some of the changes they made from the novel. “THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO” benefited from a script that balanced action with drama. I found it interesting that most of the action occurred in the movie’s first half – before Dantès’ transformation into the Count of Monte Cristo. Aside from a brief duel between Dantès and Mondego, most of the second half seemed dominated by drama and Dantès’ schemes. My favorite scheme centered around Dantès’ exposure of Mondego’s murderous actions against I have no problem with this . . . to a certain extent. One of the major differences between this movie and Dumas’ novel is the romance between Dantès and Mercedes. Unlike the novel, the pair eventually reconcile with each other, following the death of Mercedes’ husband. Frankly, I am glad that Lee and the other two screenwriters made this change. As much as I admired Dumas’ bittersweet ending to Dantès and Mercedes’ relationship, I have always found it somewhat . . . disappointing. That disappointment was eliminated when the screenwriters allowed the couple to spend their remaining years together.

However, I do have my complaints regarding “THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO”. Although the movie seemed to be balanced between action and drama, I would have preferred if that balance had been maintained throughout the film. If it were not for Dantès’ schemes against his enemies – especially Fernand Mondego – I would have been bored with the movie’s second half. It did not help that I found Dantès’ duel with Mondego rather dull. Even worse, the screenwriters decided to be faithful to Dumas’ novel by having the duel before Dantès’ acts of vengeance against Danglars and de Villefort. For once, I wish they had not been so faithful. And honestly . . . I wish the screenwriters had found another way for Dantès to exact revenge upon de Villefort other than prematurely exposing himself . . . an act that led to his arrest and trial. Because I did not find this method particularly satisfying.

I certainly have no complaints about the performances in “THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO”. There were performances that I found solid, but not particularly interesting. Among them are Irene Harvey and Douglas Walton as the two young lovers – Valentine de Villefort and Albert Mondego; Luis Alberni as Jacopo; Lawrence Grant as a slightly hammy de Villefort Sr.; and Georgia Caine as Mercedes’ mother. Louis Calhern, Sidney Blackmer and Raymond Walburn as Dantès’ three nemesis – Raymond de Villefort Jr., Ferdinand Mondego and Baron Danglars. I was especially impressed by Calhern’s subtle performance. And I was very impressed by O.P. Heggie’s emotional, yet wise take on the Abbé Faria. However, Robert Donat and Elissa Landi gave, in my opinion, the best performances in the film. For me, they were the heart and soul of “THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO” Both Donat and Landi managed to skillfully develop their characters from the innocent young lovers to the embittered ex-convict and his long-suffering former fiancée, who young lives had been unraveled by the capriciousness of three men. One of my favorite scenes in the movie featured their reunion after nearly twenty years apart. I found it both tense and emotionally satisfying.

There are some aspects of “THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO” that prevents it from becoming a big favorite of mine. But I cannot deny that it is a well made adaptation of Dumas’ novel. And one can thank Rowland V. Lee’s solid direction, the excellent script written by him, Philip Dunne and Dan Totheroh, and a solid cast led by the talented Robert Donat.

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“LES MISERABLES” (2012) Review

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“LES MISERABLES” (2012) Review

There were a few movies released in 2012 that I was very reluctant to see in the theaters. One of those movies turned out to be “LES MISERABLES”, the recent adaptation of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s 1985 stage musical of the same name. And that musical was an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel.

Directed by Oscar winning director Tom Hooper, “LES MISERABLES” told the story of early 19th century French convict Jean Valjean released from prison on parole by a guard named Javert in 1815. Nineteen years earlier, Valjean had been imprisoned for stealing bread for his sister’s starving family. Because of his paroled status, Valjean is driven out of every town. He is offered food and shelter by the Bishop of Digne, but steals the latter’s silver during the night. Valjean’s former prison guard, the police captures him. But the Bishop informs them that he had given the silver to Valjean as a gift. The former convict eventually breaks his parole and Javert vows to capture him. Eight years later, Valjean has become a wealthy factory owner and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. Some of Valjean’s factory workers discover that one of their own, a woman named Fantine, one of his workers, has been sending money to an illegitimate daughter named Cosette. Fantine uses her salary to pay an unscrupulous innkeeper named Thénardiers, his equally shady wife and their daughter Éponine to take care of Cosette. However, Valjean’s foreman dismisses Fantine and she resorts to desperate measures to support her daughter by selling her hair and teeth, before becoming a prostitute. Javert, who has become the town’s chief inspector, arrests Fantine for striking an abusive customer. Valjean saves her and has her hospitalized. He also learns that a man believed to be him, has been arrested. Refusing to allow an innocent man to become condemned in his place, Valjean reveals his identity during the man’s trial. Then then returns to the hospital and he promises the dying Fantine that he will look after Cosette.

Javert arrives to take Valjean into custody, but Valjean escape with a jump into the local river. He then pays the Thénardiers to allow him to take Cosette. The pair elude Javert’s pursuit and begin a new life in Paris. The story jumps nine years later in which the grandson of a wealthy man and student and named Marius Pontmercy becomes involved in a growing revolutionary movement following the death a government official sympathetic to the poor named Jean Maximilien Lamarque. He also falls in love with Cosette, much to Valjean’s dismay, who believes he is an agent of Javert’s. Meanwhile, Marius is unaware that Éponine Thénardier, the daughter of Cosette’s former caretakers, has fallen in love with him. Most of these storylines – Valjean’s reluctance to acknowledge Cosette and Marius’ love; Éponine’s unrequited love for Marius; and Valjean’s problems with Javert, who has joined the Paris police force, culminates in the long and detailed sequence that features the June Rebellion of 1832.

After watching my DVD copy of “LES MISERABLES”, I cannot deny that the movie has some great moments and struck me as pretty damn good. The sequence featuring Fantine’s troubles greatly moved me. After winning an Academy Award for her outstanding performance as the doomed woman, Anne Hathaway had expressed a hope that one day the misfortunes of Fantine would be found only in fiction in the future. That is a lovely hope, but knowing human nature, I doubt it will ever happen. And watching Fantine’s life spin out of control, due to the narrow-minded views of society and male objectivity of her body, I think my views on human nature sunk even further. Some critics had the nerve to claim that Fantine’s situation was something from the past and could never be considered relevant today. I am still amazed that adults – even those who considered themselves civilized and intelligent – could be so completely blind and idiotic. Even Valjean’s attempts to make a life for himself, following his release from prison struck me as relevant – echoing the attempts of some convicts to overcome the criminal pasts and records in an effort to make a new life. Usually with little or no success, thanks to the chilly attitude of the public. Hugh Jackman’s performance beautifully reflected the struggles of many convicts – past and present – to make new lives for themselves – especially in the movie’s first half hour. Although many people tend to view the police officer Javert as evil, I suspect they view his villainy as a product of any society that creates rules – at times rigid – to keep the general population in check. While watching “LES MISERABLES”, I realized that I could never view Javert as a villain of any kind. He merely seemed to be a foil or object to Valjean’s chances for a new life. More than anything, Javert seemed to be a victim of his own rigid views on good, evil and upholding the law. Russell Crowe did a beautiful job of expressing Javert’s inability to be flexible in his views on morality . . . even when his own flexibility comes to the fore when he allows Valjean to finally escape in the end. And it is a shame that he never earned an Academy Award or Golden Globe Award nomination.

“LES MISERABLES” has a running time of 2 hours and 38 minutes. Yet, only 50 minutes of the film focused on Valjean’s early years as an ex-convict, his tenure as mayor of Montreuil-sur-Merhis, Fantine’s troubles and young Cosette’s time with the Thénardiers. The rest of the movie is set in 1832 Paris, leading up to the outbreak of the June Rebellion. And if I must honest . . . I found that a little disappointing. Mind you, not all of the 1832 segment was a waste. Thanks to Tom Hooper’s direction, the segment featured a well directed and detailed account of the June Rebellion – especially from Marius Pontmercy, Valjean and Javert’s viewpoints. It featured more fine performances from Jackman and Crowe, as Valjean and Javert continued their game of cat and mouse. It also featured an excellent performance from Samantha Barks, who made a very impressive film debut as Éponine Thénardier, the oldest daughter of Cosette’s cruel caretakers. Many filmgoers and critics had complained about the romance between Cosette and Marius Pontmercy, claiming that it seemed forced. I do not know if I could agree with that assessment. I thought Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne did a pretty good job in conveying the young couple’s romantic interest in each other. The problem with their romance centered on Cosette’s character.

I realized that Seyfried did all she could to infuse some kind of energy into the role. I could say the same for Isabelle Allen. Both Seyfriend and Allen gave first-rate performances. Unfortunately, both were saddled with a one-dimensional character. At times, I found myself wishing that Éponine and not Cosette had ended up with Marius. In fact, I felt the movie could have explored Cosette and the Thénardiers’ relationship with a little more depth. As for the Thénardiers, they proved to be the story’s true villains. Unfortunately, Helen Bonham-Carter and Sascha Baron Cohen injected a little too much comedy into their performances. The couple came off more as comic relief, instead of villains. And I blame both Hooper and the screenwriters. Cosette and the Thénardiers were not the only problems. Although I had complimented Hooper’s direction of the June Rebellion scenes, the entire sequence threatened to go on and on . . . almost forever. I ended up as one relieved moviegoer when the sequence ended with quick violence and Valjean’s rescue of Marius. I have a deep suspicion that “LES MISERABLES” was really about the June Rebellion. Many claimed that Hugo was inspired by his witness of the insurrection. Which would explain why the story’s earlier period between 1815 and 1823 were rushed in a span of 50 minutes or so. Pity. Other moviegoers complained about Hooper’s constant use of close-ups in the film. And I have to agree with them. For a movie that was supposed to be a historic epic wrapped in a musical production, the balance between wide shots and close-ups somewhat unbalanced. During Valjean’s death scene, he envisioned not only the long dead Fatine, but also the insurrectionists who had fought alongside Marius before getting killed. One of those insurrectionists turned out to be Éponine Thénardier. Only she had died before Valjean had arrived at Marius’ barricade. So . . . why was he experiencing images of her?

I could comment on the singing performances of the cast. I thought they had more or less did a pretty good job. Many had criticized Crowe’s singing, but I honestly felt nothing wrong about it. Hathaway’s acting during her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” impressed me a lot more than her singing voice, which struck me as pretty solid. I had expected Jackman’s singing to knock my socks off. It did not quite reach that level. Like Hathaway and Crowe, his acting impressed me a lot more than his singing. Both Redmayne and Seyfried sang pretty well. So did Helen Bonham-Carter and Cohen. But the one musical performance that really impressed me was Samantha Barks’ rendition of “On My Own”. The actress/singer has a beautiful voice.

I liked “LES MISERABLES” very much. The movie featured fine performances from the cast. And Tom Hooper did a very good job in directing the film, despite the many close-ups. And I do believe that it deserved a Best Picture nomination. Do not get me wrong. I enjoy musicals very much. But I simply could not endure a musical that not only featured songs, but dialogue acted out in song. It stretched my patience just a little too much – like the drawn out sequences leading up to the violence that ended the June Rebellion. I would like to say that I regret missing “LES MISERABLES” in the movie theaters. But I would be lying. I have no regrets . . . as much as I like the film.