Dominik Moll’s new screen version of Matthew Lewis’ gothic literature classic, The Monk, is brave enough to cast Vincent Cassel in the role of Ambrosio, the virtuous monk whose actions and desires lead him on the path to Satan. Therein lies this film’s major problem – and one it fails to overcome, sadly.
Though a clear challenge to the actor’s usual screen persona, it feels a bit too much of a volte-face or pure vanity pursuit that wishes to impart a message to the world: “I can be a subtle performer if I choose to be”. It’s like when Mel Gibson played Hamlet. A bit different, but doesn’t entirely succeed. The proposition only draws attention to itself.
Yet for all its apparent strangeness one equally admires Moll’s choice. This is a very intense and moody portrayal from a man prone to being a ham when the mood takes him or role calls for it. Here he’s much more subdued and sad-eyed. Ambrosio is a man caught between devotion, desire and intellect. From this chaos springs a downfall for his actions reek of callousness and hypocrisy.
Moll and co-writer Anne-Louise Trividic have streamlined plot points, discarded many subnarratives, characters and reworks other elements entirely. They’ve gone for the Gothic core of the material. The film’s greatest asset derives pictorially with beautiful cinematography by Patrick Blossier which symbolically plays between intense light and deep, dark shadows. The production design is exquisite, too.
And so hellbound Ambrosio, the pious preacher and devout soldier of Christ, loses his way and succumbs to evil influences. The introduction of Valerio (played by Déborah François), a figure of supernatural beguilement, should set alarm bells ringing in the monk but instead it allows him to edge deeper and deeper into the abyss awaiting.
The moral of the story is obvious stuff and a grasp at redemption sort in the final moments. Again the film’s failings (if we can call them such) stem from Cassel, who is a bit too old to play Ambrosio. The actor is forty-five playing a forty year old who, in the novel, is a young man. Instead of a monk discovering carnal desire and the horror of bewitchment, he’s more like a horny old man who has realised suppressing his natural urges has robbed him of unknown pleasures and knowledge.
The Monk does have its moments yet the intense, almost-dreamlike air is less persuasive than it should be. The gothic elements are well handled, however, something a bit more openly surreal and erotic would have worked wonders.
UK Release Date: 27th April