Guilty as charged

Television - Andrew Billen on a pretentious adaptation of <em>Crime and Punishment</em>

Our lamented former columnist Sean French used to write about the dangerous party game of owning up to which major works of literature you have not read. In one of David Lodge's novels, it cost an academic his job. The following confession may cost this reviewer his tenure. But here goes: I have never read Crime and Punishment. If my editors are thinking of punishing me for this crime, all I can say to them is that, having watched Tony Marchant's two-part film (11 and 12 February, BBC2), I am determined to repent and read it some time soon.

This is not because the adaptation was a roaring success. I want to read the Dostoevsky because, after three hours watching John Simm in various stages of disarray, crossing, surely, each of St Petersburg's 349 bridges, I still don't know what Fyodor was getting at. A young man kills his crotchety pawnbroker, feels terrible about it and, many pages later, owns up to a supercilious policeman who seems to understand him better than he does himself. From this dramatisation, the best I could gather was that the novel was a study in guilt, a prototype for Franz Kafka's Trial, except our hero is guilty, not innocent.

Slowly, it is true, one began to get some clues that Raskolnikov had killed the crone for reasons more complicated than his mounting student debts. The pawnbroker represented, I assume, unsympathetic capitalism, her murder was therefore a political act and also, in some predictive way, an existentialist act of self-affirmation. It was hard, however, to feel much sympathy for Raskolnikov on these counts, because the plot seemed to back the forces of law and money against him. The momentum of the narrative was all towards his confessing, and I did not get the impression that Dostoevsky or Marchant thought this a bad thing in the way that, say, Foucault, who called confession torture's "dark twin", might have done. (And that, I promise, is as clever as this ill-read columnist is going to get this week.) In the last five minutes of the film, the anti-hero is seen performing hard labour in a Siberian swamp. Having confessed his crime and accepted his punishment, he is rewarded by the appearance of his old girlfriend Sonia, who has effected a similar repentance and turned from prostitution to millinery.

Siberia looked malarial, but then so did St Petersburg. The first 45 minutes were soaked in sweat and, although Raskolnikov's fever finally abated, the film never got its own temperature down. As a portrayal of the febrile symptoms of guilt, it was excellent. Eigil Bryld's photography was as jittery as a junkie's handshake and the filming appeared crudely contrasted so that silhouetted heads conducted dialogue against bright sunlight. Although we were allowed nothing so forgiving as captions establishing times and places, the city seemed to be in its White Nights season, where there is scarcely time to pour a vodka between dusk and dawn. This added to an atmosphere of no hiding place.

It was only when Julian Jarrold, the director, stood still in one of the city's wonderful interiors that there was a chance to enjoy the dialogue and acting. John Simm's Raskolnikov portrayed the queasiness of guilt and its alternation with the bravado of someone who thinks he may just get away with it. As his face erupted into a bad-skin day to end all bad-skin days, you realised he was getting under his character's surface in a remarkable way. The difficulty was that, without a voice-over, we could not get into his head. Simm's counterpoint was Ian McDiarmid as the detective prosecutor Porfiry. Where Raskolnikov was out of control, Porfiry was just as horribly in command. His moral smugness was cleverly illustrated by his repeated drinking of tea or coffee, and twice the camera took his cup to the centre of the screen.

Had we been allowed to watch more of Simm and McDiarmid sparring, we would have been in for a dramatic couple of nights. But their scenes were spaced far apart to make way for a sub-plot involving a past affair of Raskolnikov's sister. Try as they might, Kate Ashfield as the sister, Nigel Terry as Svidrigailov and David Haig as his rival, Luzhin, could not make much of this. Shaun Dingwall had an equally tough time in his role as Raskolnikov's slow-witted best friend. Only Geraldine James, as the mother trying to convince herself that her murderer son was innocent, drew you in further. Everyone else looked lost in a film that managed to be at once busy and static. The feeling of liberation and redemption that I assume you were meant to share with Raskolnikov at the end simply did not happen.

Jane Tranter, the BBC's controller of drama commissioning, called this a "thorough, modern and accessible adaptation of Crime and Punishment". I disagree. Its textual transgressions - such as ignoring Raskolnikov's religious conversion - may have fascinated (or frustrated) the initiated, but for the uninitiated it was a rare case of television not dumbing down a text far enough. Jarrold and Marchant made a version of Great Expectations a few years ago and it was an invigorating modernisation. Their Crime and Punishment was pretentious. Can somebody please reassure me that Dostoevsky's original wasn't?

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard