Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s international best-seller vividly relocated Dante’s inferno to a Russian gulag in which Stalin is Satan and Russian penal colonies hell-holes. Unfotunately, the combination of Sheldon Larry's static direction and the cast's mishmash of accents keep this television adaptation from
achieving the same power and profundity.
When not purging dissidents, Stalin (F. Murray Abraham) focuses on developing a nuclear bomb and in 1949 relocates the Soviet Union's intellectual and scientific creme de la crème to Mavrino Prison. Unlike other punitive jails, it's geared to encouraging former radicals to busy themselves with their specialties. Savvy convicts like historian Lew Rubin (Victor Garber) play
ball and exaggerate the extent of their technological progress. Less cowed by threats of Siberia, mathematician Gleb Nerzhin (Robert Powell) only does the minimum required; his rebellious nature leaves him vulnerable to informants. Nerzhin even declines when his former mentor, Wladimir Tscehlnow (Gunther Maria Halmer), offers to improve Nerzhin's lot if he joins his cryptography unit. Such independence doesn’t sit well with the wardens or their superior, General
Abakumov (Christopher Plummer), who must calm the volatile Stalin whenever he flies off the handle. Amid rumors of a double agent transmitting Russia’s secrets to England, Stalin vows to ferret out the inside man phoning Russia’s enemies and demands a voice print analysis machine. While Rubin’s team keeps ironing out kinks in a voice-descrambler, another inmate perfects a machine that can translate undecipherable messages; time runs out for the Foreign Ministry mole while the inventor considers his decoder's military applications of his decoder. Fearful of their own expendability, Stalin’s wardens order the prisoners speed up productivity: It’s a choice between amnesty and death.
This cumbersome adaptation draws heavily from the novel but never successfully finds visual ways to bolster the impact. That said, Abraham is scarily convincing as a dictator, whose paranoia can only be quenched by banishing his foes, and Plummer adds a delightful comic pomposity to his role as Stalinist puppet.
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- Released: 1977
- Rating: NR
- Review: Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s international best-seller vividly relocated Dante’s inferno to a Russian gulag in which Stalin is Satan and Russian penal colonies hell-holes. Unfotunately, the combination of Sheldon Larry's static direction and the cast's mishma… (more)