Based upon Nobel Prize winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novel of the same name, First Circle is a sprawling, deliciously paranoid Cold War thriller that features an impressive cast (F. Murray Abraham, Christopher Plummer and Victor Garber, among others) and a grim, almost oppressive sense of late Forties Russia under Josef Stalin's iron-fisted rule – the miniseries was filmed on location in wintry Moscow.
This 1991 made-for-TV miniseries, directed by Sheldon Larry, spends roughly three days in Mavrino Prison, specially designed by reigning dictator Josef Stalin (F. Murray Abraham) for physicists, mathematicians, electrical engineers and other intellectuals to participate in state-supported scientific research. One day, a mysterious individual makes a panicked phone call to the American embassy. The phone call is recorded by the Ministry of Security, who, in the interest of protecting the USSR, must quickly identify the anonymous caller; a voice print analysis machine is being developed in Mavrino and the pressure to get the machine up and running becomes almost unbearable. Laboring under increasingly hostile conditions, those tasked with its completion struggle to maintain a sense of humanity.
Featuring numerous, sometimes barely sketched characters and an, at times, quite byzantine plot, First Circle is a sobering examination of the dark, spiraling madness that gripped the USSR during Stalin's reign – the cast is uniformly excellent and while the plot is thick, viewers who pay attention will find this occasionally overlong drama worth their time.
First Circle is presented as originally broadcast in 1.33:1 fullscreen – looking slightly soft and smeary (a la a PAL-to-NTSC transfer) at times, this is not an image that's held up well. A digital spit and polish would've brought Ronald Orieux's stark, period images to more vivid life.
Dolby 2.0 stereo is the only audio option but since First Circle is a dialogue-heavy film, that's no problem (and yes, some of the non-English speaking thespians have been very clearly dubbed, but it's not too distracting) Gabriel Yared's hopelessly dated synth score sounds just as crisp as Stalin's infrequent, unhinged rants; this is a perfectly serviceable mix.
Not much in the way of supplemental material is offered: the only bonus of any real substance is the text-based "Solzhenitsyn and The First Circle," detailing the author's relation to the story. Cast and credits, along with actor filmographies, are also included.
First Circle is a handsomely mounted production that suffers from an excess of characters and an occasional obfuscation of plot – the filmmakers' intentions are admirable, but judicious editing would've strengthened this adaptation considerably. History film buffs will delight in this sprawling miniseries; everyone else should probably pass. Rent it.