Henry Czerny, who mesmerized audiences in telepic “The Boys of St. Vincent,” gives such an astonishing performance in “Notes From Underground” that he manages to make a film that’s basically one long monologue a provocative as well as entertaining experience. Despite format’s limitations, there may be a small theatrical public for this modern adaptation of Dostoevsky’s famous novella; it’s a wry, ironic and insightful portrait of the complex, often deranged workings of the human psyche.
Though Dostoevsky continues to inspire the modern consciousness, writers attempting to translate his novels to the screen face the considerable challenge of how to record an internal world of thoughts and feelings through physical reality. Scripter-director Gary Alan Walkow should be commended for finding a reasonably effective way to visualize the introspective workings of a feverish mind, underlined by contradictory moments of rationality and madness, passion and withdrawal, humaneness and misanthropy.
Czerny plays an antihero par excellence, a lonely, alienated, nameless civil servant engaged in a meaningless, demeaning job as an inspector in the city’s Building Dept. A typical bureaucrat, he takes pleasure in tormenting architects and contractors who seek his office’s approval for their plans.
Shunned and despised by his friends, he’s determined to set things right by imposing himself on them, but the harder he tries the more embarrassing and humiliating the results are.
The underground man is a bundle of contradictions: He resents his social inferiority, yet whenever possible flaunts his sense of intellectual superiority. His two cherished qualities are pride and spite and, to protect them, he puts himself through situations that always backfire.
He pursues a delicate, problematic relationship with Liza (Sheryl Lee), a young prostitute he meets in a brothel. While directing his vengeful anger at the innocent woman, and sadistically toying with her emotions, he’s also genuinely interested in rescuing her. But the moment she arrives at his basement apartment, he regrets his valiant effort and torments her further.
No plot synopsis can do justice to the nuanced richness of the material, drolly adapted by Walkow. The director uses the narrative device of having Czerny face a homevideo camera and record a series of intimate monologues, which are intercut with flashbacks and flash-forwards of the events as reconstructed from his p.o.v.
Obviously, it’s the kind of picture that depends entirely on brilliant acting; miraculously, Czerny confronts the challenge with gusto and passion. In what is essentially a one-man show, he commands the screen with his intense, high-strung presence and remarkably modulated voice, which moves from irony to pathos often within the same sentence.
“Notes From Underground” doesn’t belong in the same league as the truly notable screen adaptations of Dostoevsky, such as Visconti’s “White Nights” or Bresson’s “Une femme douce” and “Four Nights of a Dreamer,” but it’s certainly more insightful and faithful to the source than other Hollywood renditions of the Russian master, including the 1935 and 1959 versions of “Crime and Punishment.”