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Students Against Old Ladies 

And Man vs. Beast

Thursday, Jan 23 2003
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Photos courtesy BBC Worldwide

FEODOR DOSTOYEVSKY’S CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is one of those novels that generally enters a reader’s bloodstream in late adolescence and is apt to linger there for decades afterward. Like Hamlet, it’s a great story about a violently unhappy student, and God knows there are always plenty of those around. Hence the eternal, built-in audience, and multiple film and television versions.

Back in 1979, the BBC brought Crime and Punishment to the small screen with the great John Hurt in the starring role. I barely recall the film, but I do remember my paperback copy of the novel, which featured the actor’s gaunt visage on its dog-eared cover. (He was too old for the part, but had the perfect face for it, not to mention the name.) John Simm (24 Hour Party People), who plays Dostoyevsky’s student hero, Raskolnikov, in the BBC’s latest version (Bravo, January 28-29, 8 p.m.), is the right age but lacks Hurt’s lordly disdain. Dostoyevsky describes Raskolnikov as “an extraordinarily handsome young man,” and this is an unusual instance where the character in the book is better-looking than the actor in the film, who looks rather like a waifish Russell Crowe. (If you think Crowe is extraordinarily handsome, ignore that last comment.)

Crime tells the story of a brilliant but impoverished student who murders an old pawnbroker and her sister, partly for the money, and partly to test one of his own theories, namely that certain “superior” beings (like Napoleon) are above the law and have the right to transgress social norms in pursuit of their goals. “Great men smash laws, smash old ways, in order to create new ones,” he says. “Great men are not afraid to be criminals.”

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The first hour of the film is like Naked Lunch or Trainspotting transported to 19th-century Russia, with Raskolnikov coming off like a cash-strapped addict going cold turkey. The camera, working a little too hard at being expressive — it’s in your face, it’s in Raskolnikov’s face, it’s in everyone’s face! — traps our hero in a Kafkaesque warren of tiny streets, narrow corridors and dark tunnels that emerge suddenly on giant sunlit squares with towering, disorienting government buildings. The alleys are filled with drunks and prostitutes and consumptive mothers. Raskolnikov’s rotting tenement, with its crumbling stone and gouged, peeling plaster, seems coated in a malarial flop sweat, as does the hero himself. Raskolnikov gets away with his crime, but, tossing and turning on his bed, he can’t escape his guilt at having committed it.

Which, of course, is what we like about him. And the only problem with all this fancy-pants filmmaking, aside from the fact that it makes you feel as if you’re in a car with an extremely bad driver, is that it fails in the one function it must perform at the outset: Make the hero interesting. Since Raskolnikov is one of the more fascinating protagonists in world literature, you might consider this the easy part, but without a voice-over narration, which the screenwriter Tony Marchant (Great Expectations) and director Julian Jarrold (ditto) elected to do without, it’s hard to get into Raskolnikov’s head, let alone Dostoyevsky’s. It’s clear Raskolnikov is suffering, but from what? In the absence of words to guide us, his pain becomes generic.

The good news is that the film gets better. Slowly the Dostoyevskian details pile up. Bit by bit, we’re admitted to his universe, and we begin to understand what it would be like to be a young man who, already deeply disturbed, robs and murders an old woman and then nearly goes mad from guilt and remorse. The scenes with Porfiry (Ian McDiarmid), the investigating magistrate who drives Raskolnikov to distraction with his sly, teasing questions, are brilliantly done, and Raskolnikov’s journey from defiant self-justification (“I killed a louse, Sonya, an insect. I dared to raise my foot, and I dared to bring it down on her, and I squashed her!”) toward anguished public confession (“I am a murderer!”) and atonement (seven years in Siberia) is movingly handled. In the end, though over-directed and curiously underwritten, given the wealth of dialogue to be drawn from the novel, Marchant and Jarrold’s Crime is a bold attempt to re-imagine a classic in a contemporary, non–Masterpiece Theatre way.

Perhaps Dostoyevsky will make a cameo appearance on Clone High, along with Vincent van Gogh (who popped up in the first episode) and other tormented 19th-century artists. I thought this new animated series on MTV (Mondays, 10:30 p.m.) might be amusing when I first read about it — the premise is that the clones of various historical greats cut off in their prime (Abe Lincoln, Joan of Arc, JFK, Cleopatra) are in high school together and suffering from children-of-the-famous syndrome — but now that I’ve seen it, I’m not sure if it even sounds funny anymore. I did laugh a few times during the opening episode, and the visuals were cute, but overall it felt like the first draft of what should be a much better, wittier show.

The main problem is that, having come up with their hook, the writers — 27-year-old Dartmouth grads Chris Miller and Phil Lord — don’t really do anything with it. “Being the clone of Mahatma Gandhi is a lot to live up to,” they write in the “Character Description” section of the production notes. “So instead of crusading for a free and harmonious India, our Gandhi tries, and fails, to be the ultimate party animal.” As a joke — put Gandhi’s clone in high school and watch him turn into a typical goofball — this gets old pretty fast. As for Abe Lincoln, he’s in love with Cleopatra, who’s going out with JFK, which leaves Abe stuck with Joan of Arc, who takes calls on a suicide hot line from van Gogh . . .

Life of Brian it ain’t.

Beast vs. man: Who can eat 50 nathan’s hot dogs faster?

Much better was Man vs. Beast, a one-hour special on Fox that put all those human-vs.-human reality shows to shame. Particularly memorable was the tug of war between a Japanese sumo wrestler and a female Bornean orangutan. What was notable about the contest was not just the ease with which the orangutan won, despite being half the wrestler’s size, but the dismissive, almost contemptuous air with which she did so. It was clear she didn’t rate humans very highly.

After she’d sent the astonished sumo wrestler (he thought he was going to win easily) plunging into the mud pit that separated them, the orangutan raised her deceptively strong, furry arms in triumph. For a moment, I thought she must be imitating a professional athlete she’d seen on TV. But then I realized it was the other way around. We’re descended from them. No wonder she stared at the sumo wrestler as if she could see right into his soul.

Another Japanese athlete came up short when Takeru Kobayashi, the world’s competitive-eating champion, took on a 1,000-pound Alaskan brown bear in a race to see who could devour 50 Nathan’s hot dogs quicker. Needless to say, the bear thrashed him. “See how casual the bear is,” enthused the commentator as it effortlessly flicked sausages into its mouth. Shameless and wonderfully silly, this was trash TV at its best.

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