Tuesday, February 23, 2016

cinema obscura: Caspar Wrede's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" (1970)

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.


Sean F. said...

"Ivan Denisovich" is a heartbreaking drama that starts out sad and ends sad and everything in-between is done with the delicacy of a Chaplin tragedy (albeit with a hint of comedy).

Nicholas said...

I have fond memories of this film which seemed to disappear the day after it closed. And whatever happened to Caspar Wrede? I thought his work on this film - his resistance to integrate realism with artiness. He kept it straight - and harsh.

David said...

The last two posters are of course right about the split between art and reality. "Ivan" does this in a pretty gutsy way. I love that the way Wrede holds his film in a very tense set of intimate medium shots and his selective use of ambient sounds, like the sound of the birds and the echoe s far off.There are other great things, too, I'm sure, but I'd have to see the film again.

G. Hicks said...

I feel like such discussions on reality versus art are usually based on rather arbitrary standards of sramatic ‘naturalism’. The dialogue in Wrede’s film is very unique in its content and prosody, and it reflects many of the aspects of Solzhenitsyn's worldview. Particularly, there’s a raw self-consciousness belied in almost everything Ivan says. The result of which is that his dialogue “often sounds like a silent-film caption or a philosophic aphorism rather than natural expression” to quote Gallagher on King Vidor. Thus, the few people who I know who saw "Ivan" withheld full marks for what they saw as the film’s lacking in operatic swagger.

Noel said...

I find a no-holds-barred earnestness and a choice lack of irony, a defining facet of Alexandre Solzhenitsyn's personality, which Caspar Wrede honors in "Ivan Denisovich." Oddly, this is what also keeps his film from reaching the heights that the friends of G. Hicks seemed to expect.

joe baltake said...

I appreciate the art-vs-reality discussion here as it applies to "Ivan Denisovich." Much the same can be said of Josephy Anthony's "Tomorrow" (1972), the Robert Duvall film based on the William Faulkner short story (by way of a Horton Foote screenplay). Duvall's performance is the perfect companion piece to Courtenay's in "Ivan," both quietly commanding and sometimes monosyllabic.

Brian Lucas said...

I agree with Nicholas. I've seen "Ivan" only once - and a long time ago - but I remember being struck by the fact that Wrede resisted directing it a little too closely to an aesthetic playbook established by these kinds of art films. It's more real than art, although its artistry is clearly there.

Sheila said...

So happy that you praise the wonderful Tom Courtenay. And you're right. He was inexcusably overlooked this year.

Marvin said...

Thank you so much for introducing me to that obscure Courtney film ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN . . . . Have never heard of it; will attempt to obtain it.