Although a poor adaptation in several ways of Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment," this film does make one interesting adjustment to the novel, albeit in a clumsily heavy-handed manner. That's more than I can say for some of the other cinematic versions I've reviewed since reading the text. Many of them either update the 19th-century setting to the modern day, as this one does, or treat the narrative as some sort of timeless parable. But the book is very much a product of its time and a reactionary critique to the radicalism, including Russian nihilism, of the author's place and era. Reworking the politics and religion to its own day is what is interesting here. Made in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, it condemns the dictators of yore--and, namely, Stalin--by comparing their acts to the murder committed by Raskolnikov, while also relocating the story from Saint Petersburg (the capital in Dostoevsky's day) to Moscow (the capital of the USSR and today's Russia). Ironically, the picture wasn't released, however, until the rise of a new dictator of Russia in the 21st century, Vladimir Putin, which severely puts a damper on the narrative in the film offering hope for Russia's redemption in the post-Cold-War world.
As a transmutation of Dostoevsky's words to screen, this is otherwise quite bad. The score is a nuisance and seems to exist largely to compensate for perceived pacing problems. Crispin Glover, best known as Marty McFly's dad, initially seems well cast as the unhinged protagonist, and the early combination of his voiceover and straight-out public mutterings of his thoughts is faithful to the character. But, boy, does he feature some odd mannerisms, including deliberate line readings, a creepy smile at the strangest moments, and a tendency to overact. He's not the only one, though; Vanessa Redgrave and Margot Kidder, a.k.a. Lois Lane, are called upon to do likewise for two minor parts that waste their talents. All of which makes John Hurt's calm demeanor, as the police inspector pursuing Glover's Rakolnikov as a murder suspect, stand out all the more. The casting of American and English actors, for the leads at least, is another quizzical decision for what is reported to have been an international production between the two former superpowers of the Cold War, as well as by one of their former Iron-Curtain pawns.
Story particulars are altered, too, which I don't mind for the most part. Raskolnikov certainly does lead the police to suspect him--even more so than he did in the book. Hurt's police inspector, consequently, appears at best competent rather than brilliant at his job given the mountain of bread crumbs left to him by the murderer in this version. Additionally, Hurt narrates the epilogue, but I'm just pleased that there's an epilogue here at all; most film adaptations drop that part of the book, but it's especially important for this version given the connection to the nation's path to regeneration. The one alteration that significantly bothers me, on the other hand, is the reduction of the role of Sonia. Hurt's character assumes much of her original role in Raskolnikov's conversion, while other incidents between her and the protagonist are dropped altogether. This results in her inevitable love for and following of Raskolnikov seeming abrupt and unbelievable--and likewise her role as his confidant and savior.
The capital move is a nice touch, though, allowing for the prominence of the Red Square and its monuments to past dictators within a city in flux, as capitalist franchises such as McDonald's pop up, but a hammer-and-sickle poster continues to hang on the wall of the police station. A similar dichotomy appears with Raskolnikov's admiration of Nietzsche in contrast to the religious iconography hanging in Sonia's home and to the religious speech delivered by the Inspector in contrast to his Nietzsche-inspired essay. Although Dostoevsky's novel precedes Nietzsche's ubermensch, and Russian and Nietzschian nihilism are two different, if related, things, this is another apt updating on the filmmakers' part. It's largely over-the-top, much like everything else here from the acting to the music, especially when Hurt spells it out by specifically bringing up Stalin, but at least there's a raison d'être for this film--not merely yet another adaptation to miss the forest for the trees by attempting to slavishly render a novel's story particulars rather than focus on the superior work of thematic transmutation.
It's also interesting to compare this to the 1970 Soviet version, which predictably, if subtly, downplays the role of the individual and religion of the story, including by eliminating the epilogue, in favor of ultimate submission to a police state. Additionally, it's worth checking out Evgeni Bauer's pre-Soviet silent film, "Child of the Big City" (1914), which rejects Dostoevsky's moralizing in favor of modern materialism.
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