A frighteningly restrained Cassel powers a moody, classical Gothic adaptation.
Cinema hasn’t done Gothic fiction many favours. Taking the late eighteenth-century literary traditions and misappropriating them for high-school vampires and leather-clad metalheads, the spirit of Goethe and Byron got lost somewhere between Bela Lugosi and R-Patz.
Adapting Matthew Lewis’ controversial 1796 novel with a sharp eye for classical detail, director Dominik Moll goes a long way towards dragging the genre back to its roots. An international bestseller when it was first published, Lewis’ scandalous tale of lascivious monks and murderous nuns was an inspiration for everyone from the Marquis de Sade to Luis Buñuel.
The idea of translating its heady mix of swooning maidens, crumbling abbeys and midnight spooks into film has been gestating – in numerous unfinished scripts – for more than 40 years, finally coming together as a French production shot in Spain by a German filmmaker.
Set in a dank corner of rural Madrid, a baby is abandoned on the steps of a monastery and left at the mercy of the ravens. Raised by the Capuchins to become the order’s most pious and intimidating preacher, Brother Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel) is feared and respected in equal measure. When young Valerio arrives – his disfigured face hidden behind a creepy wax mask – terrible things start to happen that draw Ambrosio into a fight for his own immortal soul.
Though not generally known for his restraint, Vincent Cassel nevertheless carries the film with a subtle performance. Obviously held on a chokingly tight leash by Moll, his mad monk seethes with internalised rage (Cassel must have been bouncing off the walls every time the cameras stopped rolling). Stripping the novel down to its psychological baseline, his rattling bottle of repressed energy that supercharges what might have been a clumsy melodrama.
Refusing to borrow anything from Hollywood’s own Gothic reimagining, The Monk’s gloomy compositions have more in common with Goya and Gustave Doré than James Whale or Fritz Lang. Additionally, iris effects and double exposures lend a quaint Victorian charm to the proceedings.
Leaden with doom and swollen with symbolism, Moll’s slow, sultry romantic horror is every bit as overblown, dense and utterly immersive as the novel.
Vincent Cassel as a mad, murderous monk? It must be panto season.
A frighteningly restrained Cassel powers a moody, classical and uniquely literary Gothic adaptation.
The kind of film that works its magic after you leave the cinema.