out of Five
Running time: 101
Beautifully shot and superbly acted, this is an enjoyably dark Gothic romp, but it ultimately lacks any real emotional substance thanks to an abridged script that strips out both the novel's complexity and its more outlandish excesses.
What's it all about?
Directed by Dominik Moll (Lemming, Harry, He's Here to Help), The Monk is a French drama based on the celebrated 1796 Gothic novel by Matthew Lewis. Vincent Cassel stars as Ambrosio, a pious monk who was left on the steps of a Spanish monastery as an infant and has become a widely revered priest. However, Ambrosio is haunted by disturbing visions and when he discovers that a masked young man sheltered by the monastery is actually a beautiful woman in disguise (Deborah Francois as Valerio), he becomes increasingly corrupted and tormented by her after she seduces him.
Meanwhile, Ambrosio is also drawn to Antonia (Josephine Japy), a virtuous young woman who continually implores him to visit her sick mother (Catherine Mouchet) and is being wooed by Lorenzo (Frederic Noaille). But who is the sinister-looking parishioner (Sergi Lopez) lurking around the monastery?
Vincent Cassel is perfectly cast and delivers a superb performance, even if he's a lot more convincing as corrupt and tormented Ambrosio than as pious and devout Ambrosio. Deborah Francois is equally good as Valerio (her intriguingly blank face is endlessly fascinating) and there's strong support from both Mouchet and Japy.
The film is strikingly shot, with gorgeous, sun-bleached photography by Patrick Blossier and some stunning location work, particularly in the dream like final act. Moll also makes strong use of the colour red and creates an intense, cloying atmosphere that's highly effective.
The main problem is that Moll's script strips out a lot of the complexity and the ambiguity of Lewis' novel (not to mention the satiric anti-Catholic bent), while also reigning in some of its more outlandish and gruesome excesses, though happily the book's famous final scene is still present and correct. Similarly, the various elements of the plot never really come together in convincing fashion and it's ultimately hard to care too much about Ambrosio's fate, which robs the finale of any dramatic or emotional impact beyond the eye-popping nastiness of it all.
The Monk is never less than watchable, thanks to striking photography and enjoyable performances from Cassel and Francois, but it's never quite as chilling or as disturbing as it should have been.