"Masterpiece Theater" begins its 10th season on television at 9 p.m. Sunday with part one of a four-hour treatment of Feodor Dostoevski's "Crime and Punishment." The long-running series has helped educate America in the delights of classics television, and now it is only fitting that our new standard of taste come back to taunt the British a little.
This "Crime and Punishment," with John Hurt as the tortured student Raskolnikov, is a dutiful bore. Darkly lit and clamoring with King's English-speaking Russian hordes, it turns a tour de force of psychodrama into a murder story incomprehensible in any of its multiple guises.
"Crime and Punishment" must have seemed a difficult assignment to begin with. To my credit, I have not reread the book, but generations of students recall that its central action is the ax murder of a despicable old pawn-broker (and her daughter) by Raskolnikov, who is motivated to this violence by arrogance, pride, proverty, elusive theories of utopian idealism and the effects of a bad fever. Thereafter, a lengthy process of regeneration begins, and with it a return to nobility of the spirit.
The processes of Dostoevski, however, do not seem to lend themselves to patented "Masterpiece Theater" literalness.When Raskolnikov's brain starts to burn in psychological agony, John Hurt's forehead starts to sweat. Or he tosses and turns, or faints, or shouts at people. But mostly he sweats. The glandular solution, alas, does not quite make up for the hundreds of pages of Russian novelist flashing by. It gives the effect of a pantomine Hamlet -- inevitably somewhat the less for the loss of the Shakespeare.
The Raskolnikov's only stated justification for brutal murder is a snippet of dialogue delivered to two fellow students, whom he overhears discussing their daydream of killing the old pawnbroker themselves. Disgusted by their theorizing, he stalks out, exclaiming: "A truly great man would never discuss." Then he gets hold of the ax and off he goes, sweat forming on his brow, and soon the deed is done. End of part one.
John Hurt, as Raskolnikov, is a compelling actor doing the best he can with this novel transmogrification. Hurt seems absolutely fearless in his choice of roles. He will next be seen as the deformed protagoinst of Mel Brooks' film version of the "The Elephant Man," and recently he has played Quentin Crisp in "The Naked Civil Servant" Max the Junkie in "Midnight Express," Caligula in "I, Claudius" and the crew member in the film "Alien" out of whose chest cavity the titular critter sprang. After all that, Raskolnikov may have seemed not so impossible a character. According to a press release, John Hurt did not reread "Crime and Punishment," either.
Welcome back, "Masterpiece Theater." After four weeks of Dostoevski, or whoever it is, we get five hours of Jane Austen's "Pride and "Predjudice." Keep them coming, for we colonials are grateful -- really.