Above the laws of logic Preview: NBC's 'Punishment' doesn't befit Dostoevsky's brilliant 'Crime.' Only Ben Kingsley's stunning turn makes it worth watching.

October 10, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Oh, lord, look what they've done to Dostoevsky on network TV. They took "Crime and Punishment" and turned it into a two-hour "Columbo." All that's missing are the rumpled top coat and stub of a cigar. "Wait till I tell the missus about this one."

"Crime and Punishment" is brought to you by NBC, the home of 10,000 awful made-for-TV movies about women who are attacked and/or murdered by men they thought they could trust. What in the world, you might well ask, ever made the knuckleheads in Burbank think they could do justice to Dostoevsky's dark and sprawling tale of a young student in 19th-century Russia who thinks he's above the law?

Actually, they did have some reason to think they could make it work: They had Robert Halmi Sr. as executive producer. Halmi, as NBC is quick to point out, did "Gulliver's Travels," "Merlin" and "The Odyssey" for the network in recent years -- all triumphs.

This is true, depending on how you define triumph, but he also produced "The Sunshine Boys," with Peter Falk and Woody Allen; "Jake's Women," with Alan Alda and Anne Archer; and "London Suite," with Kelsey Grammer and Julia Louis-Dreyfus -- all great properties that resulted in terrible productions.

"Crime and Punishment" isn't terrible. An all-too-brief but absolutely mesmerizing and brilliant performance by Ben Kingsley as Magistrate Porfiry saves it from the total-loss column. But NBC's telling of Dostoevsky's tale is closer to being a Halmi bomb than one of his hits.

The main problem -- outside of being crazy enough to think you could tell this story in two hours with any kind of texture or depth -- is with the lead character of Rodya Raskolnikov (Patrick Dempsey). Dempsey is nowhere near up to the challenge of playing a character who lives so much inside his own head.

"Crime and Punishment," for those not familiar with the novel, is set in late 19th-century Russia. Raskolnikov is an intellectual, a brilliant student from a poor family, who writes an article theorizing on the role of extraordinary people in history. Napoleon was such a person, says Raskolnikov, who believes that he, too, is extraordinary. Such persons are above the morality that applies to ordinary people, Raskolnikov writes, speculating that they have the right to commit crimes if those crimes are for the overall betterment of society.

Driven by circumstance and what he sees as an oppressive social structure, Raskolnikov murders an elderly pawnbroker and her innocent sister, who stumbles upon the scene of the crime. The crime fits his model of acts justified for extraordinary men, and, initially, he escapes detection. But then guilt and Inspector Porfiry arrive.

In the novel, Raskolnikov descends into a hell of psychological torment -- obsessive remembrance of the actual murders and the steps taken to avoid getting caught, visions and hallucinations of the victims' faces and all the blood. The feelings of guilt are so overwhelming, he seems to be going, going, gone mad.

In the NBC movie, we see him take to his bed after the crime like someone who might have eaten some bad shellfish. Yes, he's sweating, he's ill, but we're not sure why, and we're thinking it might be something that could be cured with a good antacid.

In his defense, it is not all the fault of Dempsey. Screenwriter David Stevens' adaptation offers Dempsey no help in externalizing the horde of inner demons that ravages Raskolnikov.

What we are left with is the cat-and-mouse game between cop and criminal -- Kingsley's Porfiry and Dempsey's Raskolnikov -- a tried-and-true TV formula from ABC's "Columbo" to the PBS adaptations of Agatha Christie's Poirot with David Suchet.

Kingsley has only about 20 minutes on screen, but catching his performance is worth slogging through the rest of the Halmi muck.

There is a bit of Suchet's Poirot in Porfiry, but overall it is a stunningly original take on the done-to-death, nuts-and-bolts police inspector who plays intellectual inferior to the criminal to prey on the latter's vanity. Kingsley is so good you forget it is Kingsley playing the role -- no small accomplishment when you are as strong a presence as Kingsley.

But having a great cat does not guarantee great cat-and-mouse. Dempsey isn't even enough of a mouse to make this dumbed-down, over-simplified, Dostoevsky-lite version of "Crime and Punishment" ever start to roar.

'Crime and Punishment'

When: Tomorrow, 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Where: NBC (WBAL, Channel 11)

Pub Date: 10/10/98

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