Although the newspaper ads have been announcing Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," what opened yesterday at the 68th Street Playhouse is a movie by Casper Wrede, of which Solzhenitsyn's ...展开novel is the source and not the finished product. Actually the confusion, which would make perfect sense to any publicist, is to a degree supported by the film, for it is not merely a close adaptation; it has, much of the time, the look and, indeed, the feel of a careful, tasteful, rather sumptuous illustrated edition.
Ivan Denisovich (Tom Courtenay) is a political prisoner, a poor peasant who, while in the Russian army during World War II, escaped from a Nazi P.O.W. camp and for his pains was sentenced by the Stalinist government 10 years as a spy. He is now in his last two years, a seasoned prisoner in an especially harsh Siberian labor camp, where the film, like the book, follows him from before dawn until after dark through the depressions and successes of one unexceptional midwinter day.
But I doubt whether anything really gets into the movies as "unexceptional." And though the movie protests the modesty of its intentions (through the services of a fairly obtrusive voice-over narration) and honorably avoids all of the easier rhetorical excesses, it nevertheless strains toward a certain expansiveness, a range that it is one of the chief glories of Solzhenitsyn's novel never openly to assume.
For where the novel sees through the eyes of its Ivan Denisovich, whose rough, crafty, decent pragmatism saves it from most pretensions, the movie chooses mostly to look at him—and though Tom Courtenay is an actor who knows how to preserve his privacy in front of a camera, the result is that what had been "point of view" in the book becomes in the movie something less meaningful and more grand—something like "image of man."
I think this is why, despite some really estimable performances (besides Courtenay, I especially liked Espen Skjonberg as the tough and admirable work-gang boss Tiurin), the film tends to be happier the further it gets from its people—or, while it is with them, the more it can understand them as exemplars of the human condition and the less as individuals.
"One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" is thus a movie that looks uncommonly good in long distance, as in the emergence of the prison camp, rather as a bright galaxy in a dark void, that begins the film; or in the stunning shots of the prisoners and the guards trudging across the flat snow-covered landscape from prison camp to work site in the morning and back again at night.
Such sequences, however, with their excellent cinematography (by Sven Nykvist, a veteran of recent Bergman films) and their intelligent exploitation of realistic locations (in Norway, near the Arctic Circle), carry the aura of an almost official view of high quality, as if this were how an important movie made from an important novel ought to look.
At its best, for example, in depicting the brick-laying that makes up the actual work day of Ivan Denisovich, or at its worst, in the stiff-upper-lip gentility of the dialogue in Ronald Harwood's screenplay, the movie means to expose a universality in its comprehension of individual experience. But at its best, and even at its worst, both the excellence and the ineptitude seem to derive from virtues and vices that are largely academic.