Let's hear it for Tom Courtenay.
A product of the raw-edged "kitchen sink" British dramas of the 1960s, Courtenay - best known for his flawless work in Tony Richardson's "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner" (1962), as well as "Billy Liar," "King Rat" and "Otley" - always dissolved into the roles he played, never grandstanding. One could never catch him "acting" for a second and, consequently, for most of his career, he functioned in the shadows of such peers as Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Alan Bates, Laurence Harvey, Terence Stamp, Peter O'Toole, Dirk Bogarde and Albert Finney.
Currently delivering another astute performance in Andrew Haigh's "45 Years," Courtenay has stood on the sidelines while his estimable co-star, Charlotte Rampling, has generated most of the critical praise. Rampling has been nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, but not Courtenay, even though his role in the film is much more complex.
Which brings me to Courtenay's performance in Caspar Wrede's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" (1970). Stark, spare, sparce. All the unsettling "S" words apply to "Ivan Denisovich," a faithful adaptation of Alexandre Solzhenitsyn's roman à clef of the same title - a work of fiction inspired by his own experiences as a prisoner in Stalin's Gulag.
Courtenay is mesmerizing in a performance of detailed miminalism as Ivan, branded a political prisoner while serving in the Russian army during World War II. Ivan is caprtured twice - first by the Nazis who place him in a P.O.W. camp, from which he escapes, and then by a suspicious Stalinist government which incarcerates him in a gulag for 10 years as a spy. That's 3650 days. 3650.
As its title says, the film is about just one day.
Wrede's accomplishment here - a risky one - is that, for 100 unrelentling minutes, the viewer experiences the boredom and tedium and, vicariously, the pain of Ivan's deadening, grueling daily routines.
And so, not surprisingly, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" is an acquired taste. But the film's demands are definitely worth the effort.
Ronald Harwood - scenarist of "The Pianist" and "The Dresser" (which also starred Courtenay), among others - did the fly-on-the-wall adaptation, working from a translation of the original by Gillon Aitkin.
But it is Courtenay who brings it to life, achingly so.