Based on an 18th century novel by Matthew Lewis, The Monk is a French/Spanish collaboration that plays on the themes of temptation, sex and religion and all that good stuff. Starring the inimitable Vincent Cassel, this is the third adaption to be brought to the screen and considering the torrid subject matter that the original story contained, it does well not to go down the route of sensationalism.
Cassel plays Ambrosio, a monk who was raised within the walls of a monastery after being left on the doorstep as a baby and has gained something of a following through his passionate and inspiring sermons. Not having had much worldy experience, Ambrosio’s teachings hold great sway within the walls of the monastery but once temptation finds its way in to Ambrosio’s world his stoic morals are stretched and his faith tested.
At around 100 minutes long, The Monk takes its time to build an effective atmosphere and establish a mood, and it does it very well. The gothic setting of the Spanish monastery is beautifully shot and is almost a character in the film, such is its overbearing presence in pretty much most of the scenes, and a lot of care and attention is given to the authenticity of the setting.
Praise must also go to Vincent Cassel for what could turn out to be the performance of his career. Having made a bit of a name for himself playing sleazy, somewhat flamboyant characters, his restrained and understated turn here is the kind of acting that should get the attention of the proper people when awards season comes round. His intense stares and impassioned sermons are highly convincing and in the wrong hands could have turned out very comical, but Cassel plays it just right, giving enough without tipping over into parody.
But understated is a word that could also be used to describe the film as a whole. Spending most of its running time setting the scene for Ambrosio’s battles of conscience, when the inevitable happens the film loses some of what director Dominik Moll has carefully constructed during that crucial first act. Not that it totally falls apart but the final act lacks the intensity and well-paced drama of the first and, considering the length and intricacy of the original text, maybe 100 minutes wasn’t really enough to tell the story in a totally consistant manner.
But that aside, The Monk is still a creepy and atmospheric film that draws you in from its opening scenes and keeps you engaged with some terrific performances, not just from Vincent Cassel but also from Déborah François and Joséphine Japy as the principal supporting cast, and overall this is a pretty high-class production that could have done with having a more fleshed-out conclusion. Still worth a look, though.