The greatness of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” is in its political and societal philosophizing. In his allegorical story of a young man’s imprudent actions before he fully develops a moral code and belief system, Dostoevsky examines, among other questions, the social strata and what price should be paid to enter an upper class. NBC’s “Crime and Punishment” is, plain and simple, a story trying to track far too many subplots with a host of p.o.v.’s, and misfiring, if not completely forsaking, nuance.
Telepic’s most striking elements are the cinematography, the locations and the acting of Ben Kingsley as Magistrate Porfiry — proof that a faux-East European accent isn’t necessary to give a character a sense of time or place.
Dostoevsky takes time to lay out, most eloquently, the philosophy of student and political theorist Rodya Raskolnikov: that extraordinary men have a right to commit a crime without punishment if that crime rids society of an ill. But TV’s demands don’t allow a leisurely opening seg that weighs moral issues, so Raskolnikov’s philosophy is spelled out throughout the movie rather than in its beginning.
The telepic rather hurriedly attempts to set the various scenes and the pace is overwhelming for anyone not familiar with the story; between the Russian names (simplified by the producers) and the relationships of the principals, compounded by some very quick editing, pic relies heavily on its middle section to sort out everything.
That middle segment stays closest to the novel and is indeed the pic’s strongest; however, a crucial aspect of the story — that Rodya feels guilt for one murder yet not for another — remains muddled. As much as he explains his inner turmoil, the far more affecting hallucinations suggest a general, rather than specific, remorse.
Story starts in the streets of St. Petersburg in 1856, as a shot rings out during a parade of Russian royals. Racing home from the commotion, impoverished Rodya (Patrick Dempsey) ends up saving two children from a burning building. This, somehow, leads to Katerina (Penny Downie) bemoaning the uselessness of her alcoholic husband Semyon (Michael Mehlmann in a performance of little more than sleeping and moaning) and their lack of money.
Clearly an evil stepmother, she suggests that Semyon’s daughter Sonia (Julie Delpy) try prostitution and, after a few anguished stares, Sonia returns home saddened yet with a few rubles to her name.
Meanwhile, at an estate in the country, Rodya’s sister Dounia (Lili Horvath, solid in the broadest performance of the lot) has been accused of sleeping with her employer’s husband; she’s fired and soon, with her mother, visits Rodya.
Center of the story comes as the cash-hungry Rodya turns to the local pawnbroker, who gives him a less-than-generous deal — which leads him to believe her evil and therefore expendable. He kills her with an ax. While robbing her treasure trove, the pawnbroker’s kindly sister enters and he feels forced to kill her as well.
And it is her murder that truly haunts him.
As Porfiry tells Rodya in a heart-to-heart: “I let the criminal’s conscience to do its own work.” As Rodya’s romance plays out with Sonia, and Dounia has to choose between fiance and an unwanted suitor, Porfiry plays cat and mouse with his main suspect until he confesses and is sent to a Siberian prison.
As Rodya, Dempsey is best in scenes of confrontation. His own inner-dialogue, which could account for an entire film on its own, feels underdeveloped. Beyond a nice smugness that he uses in one meeting with Porfiry, the high-strung antics generally associated with political outsiders are nowhere to be found in his character. Delpy’s performance consists of layer upon layer of restraint, as she is emphasized by the camera yet underused in the dialogue. She plays remorse and devotion well.
Kingsley is the strongest: cunning and worldly in his understanding of the human condition. Every step is valid and his registered meter finds him taking a knowing delight that he has the crime solved. He brings power to each scene, elevating those who appear with him.
With a cast this large, the perfs run from serviceable to solid and the direction of Joe Sargent is steady once the initial mishmash is remedied.
Unfortunately, all the actors except Delpy and Kingsley use an assortment of Eastern Europe and Russian accents, generally sounding forced. At times, during heated conversation, the accents are altogether dropped, making for a troubling inconsistency.
On one hand, this adaptation, penned by David Stevens, stands as a noble attempt to bring classic literature to a larger audience. Yet too many of Dostoevsky’s points, from Russia’s role in the 19th century world to a young man falling under the spell of two, at times conflicting, pedagogues — Hegel and Nietzsche — fall by the wayside in the name of linear storytelling. The best thing NBC can tell its viewers who tune in is to read the book.