Phoenix Cinema

"I wanted to write about the world of moral chaos"

Dostoyevsky is a 2010 8-episode miniseries made for Russian television from director Vladimir Khotinenko, and if you're into Russian film, Russian history or Dostoevsky, then this marvellous DVD is well worth the purchase. The film doesn't begin with the start of Dostoevsky's life, but rather it begins as he's about to be executed for his involvement with the Petrashevsky Circle. This incident was a pivotal event in Dostoevsky's life – not only did it mark the beginning of his harsh exile in Siberia, but it also marked a turn in his moral outlook which consequently impacted his literary work. Veteran actor Yevgeny Mironov plays Dostoevsky, and I can't think of another Russian actor who could tackle this fiercely nuanced role so effectively. Interestingly, Mironov also played the title role in the 2003 television series version of Dostoevsky's The Idiot.

Each of the episodes begins with Dostoevsky sitting for the famous portrait painted by Petrov, and then from this point the action segues, usually from memory. Here are some highlights from each episode:

1) Dostoevsky's mock execution (not quite accurately portrayed) and his exile and imprisonment in Omsk, Siberia.

2) Dostoevsky as a private and later a lieutenant in the Russian army stationed in Semipalatinsk, Siberia, and his love affair with Mariya Dmitrievna Isayeva (played by the exquisite Chulpan Khamatova), the consumptive and miserably unhappy wife of an unemployed bureaucrat.

3) Dostoevsky in St. Petersburg, 1859: his troubled marriage to Mariya, his continuing struggles with his literary career, his love for an actress.

4) Continuing disintegration of marriage to Mariya, his passionate affair with Apollinariya Souslova, or Polina, closure of the literary magazine he ran with his brother Mikhail, 1863 trip to Wiesbaden, gambling at the casino, public reading of Insulted and Humiliated.

5) Dostoevsky, driven almost insane by his passion for Polina, follows her to Paris; Baden-Baden, the death of Dostoevsky's brother Mikhail, the death of Mariya.

6) Heavily burdened by debt, Dostoevsky makes a bet with a publisher that he'll write a novel in one month. This novel is appropriately called The Gambler, and when Dostoevsky makes the bet to complete the novel in a month, he's yet to write a line of it. Under immense pressure to meet the deadline (if he loses, the publisher has all the rights to anything Dostoevsky produces for the next nine years), he seems destined to fail. With this all-or-nothing scenario, Dostoevsky employs the quiet, self-possessed Anna (Alla Yuganova) as a stenographer.

7) Marriage to Anna, Baden-Baden 1867, meets and argues with Turgenev, Anna gives birth to first child.

8) Dostoevsky's family life and continued literary success.

The series depicts Dostoevsky as a complex man, an introvert who falls in love easily, and his love affairs seem to satisfy some facet of his personality. His compassion for Mariya, for example, long outlives any emotional attachment, his second marriage gives him some emotional stability, and his affairs drive him to the brink of insanity. Several scenes depict Dostoevsky in society, and these scenes serve to highlight Dostoevsky's complexities through his conversations with other intellectuals who repeatedly attempt to pigeonhole his intricate beliefs and his deep-rooted compassion.

The film doesn't delve into the production of Dostoevsky's great novels – and that's a bit disappointing – and instead the plot focuses on Dostoevsky seen through the prism of his relationships and his struggles with poverty (at one point, for example, he and Anna have to pawn clothes in order to send a finished manuscript of The Idiot back to Russia), and there are also a few allusions to some of the deeper references to his life. We see Anna doggedly working on a stamp collection, and while there's no background to that hobby, it's a reference to the discussion Dostoevsky once had with Anna about women. He claimed that women would approach stamp collecting with the thrill of buying a new expensive album, but that the excitement of stamp collecting would wear off shortly after making the expensive purchase. Anna, who later managed Dostoevsky's life and career with intelligent, quiet and protective passion, bought a cheap album and proceeded to collect stamps for the rest of her life. The film also hints of the manner in which she dealt with Dostoevsky's ever-grasping stepson, Pavel. Watching the film and appreciating the monumental struggles this brilliant author suffered serves to create wonder – not only that a man of this intellectual calibre suffered for the want of a few rubles, but that he never gave up the quest to write the novels he left for the world.

For this viewer, the film has some unforgettable scenes. Dostoevsky chuckling outside of the casino at Baden-Baden: his pockets are packed are full of his winnings and he chuckles like a child constantly patting his pockets. At another point, he's trying to finish The Gambler within a month and he's down to the wire and feeling ill. Anna settles him on the couch and he mutters something about being spoiled. She replies that a man cannot be spoiled by love, and we see the wheels churning in Dostoevsky's mind as he absorbs that comment. The camera is behind Dostoevsky, so we catch a side view, and somehow the camera captures the thought process in Dostoevsky's brain – simply by focusing on a close up of an eye and an eyebrow – as he reevaluates Anna. Another incredible scene takes place between a smoothly depicted Turgenev and an impassioned Dostoevsky (involving the spiteful rumours from the former that the latter molested a child). There's also a great moment between Dostoevsky and his stepson Pavel as he whines about being poor: "Pasha, it is stupid to be ashamed of poverty, you should be ashamed of stupidity". Finally, one of the film's most explosive scenes in which Mironov is Dostoevsky takes place during a public reading of Pushkin's The Prophet. Absolutely incredible.

There were a couple of points in the film that were not explained. At one point, for example, Anna, Dostoevsky's new stenographer and future wife, shows up to work one day and Dostoevsky's eye is damaged. Has he been beaten up, or was this a result of an injury sustained during a seizure? We don't know. The film has a few subtitle problems but nothing you can't work out for yourself.

There are two recurring motifs throughout the film: one depicts Dostoevsky throwing a dice during a childhood game, and this motif is placed to introduce the seismic shifts in Dostoevsky's life – often incidents that take place on a whim or by chance; and the second motif is the continual placement of the roulette wheel juxtaposed with Dostoevsky's hard labor in Siberia and his task to turn a giant wheel with bloodied hands. As the roulette wheel and the giant wheel to which Dostoevsky was chained day after day are structured similarly, the motif underscores Dostoevsky's addiction to gambling, which enslaved him as surely as his sentence to Siberia. Ultimately the film, loaded with splendid performances, will give you insights into Dostoevsky's life and work, and that's no small achievement. This really is a marvellous biopic. Grab it if you find it.