Sometimes a film will have what seem to be good ingredients, yet it just doesn't "click." Such a film is First Circle, a four-part miniseries based on the novel of the same name by the Nobel Prize-winning Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The story takes place in Russia under Joseph Stalin's rule: it's 1949, and his reign of terror and the suppression of dissent means that most of the country's intellectuals are either under suspicion, in labor camps, or imprisoned under slightly better circumstances, forced to continue their research in the faint hope of eventual freedom... or at least, in the hope of not being sent back to the even more hellish conditions of the Siberian labor camps. Solzhenitsyn lived through the times and events that he wrote about, and the film does have a grim and gritty realism to it; when it comes to the overall effectiveness of the story as told on film, though, something doesn't fall into place.
As its main focus, the story is trying to show something of the inner struggle and torment of the characters who are trapped in the "first circle" of hell in Stalin's oppressive regime. Some of this does come across; for instance, when a new batch of prisoners arrives at the Mavrino Institute, the fact that they're amazed by the improvement in conditions – no regular beatings by the guards, and a more adequate diet that occasionally includes meat – gives us a sense of the horrors that they must have been going through. And through the course of the series, the one element that does stand out is the desperation and despair of the scientists and engineers who are unjustly imprisoned with little or no hope of release, able to do nothing more than endure the latest cruelty devised by their captors.
Overall, though, the personal level of First Circle is diluted by the presence of too many characters. Character after character is introduced, in a variety of different settings: in the Mavrino Institute, in various Ministry offices, inside Stalin's inner sanctum, and in the private homes of other characters. In a novel, the author has the ability to instantly put a reader into the character's head, showing off the character's inner thoughts and personality; in film, however, these characteristics can only be shown gradually as we get to know the character. In practice, this means that a certain degree of character-hopping may work effectively in a novel but fail completely when translated to the screen. In First Circle, the numerous characters mean that little time is spent on each one before moving to the next, so that viewers don't really get a sense of who these people are, and why we should care about them. Additionally, the characters are very badly introduced, making it difficult to even keep track of who's who, much less get to know them. Despite the fairly long running time of the film (a total of 189 minutes over three parts), the story's canvas is simply too broad to allow for all of its parts to be filled out in any detail.
First Circle also attempts to tell a suspense story, and the success of this aspect of the film is hampered by some of the same flaws that make it less engaging as a character study. Little context is given to the events, and it's never clear exactly what the major issue is with the "leaked" information in the surreptitious phone call that starts off the story. Clearly the simple fact of a leak is in itself a security issue, but there's also evidently more to it than that... but it's not explained adequately to the viewer. The muddle of characters also makes it difficult to follow the suspense story. In the end, First Circle would probably have been more effective if it had focused solely on the prisoners and their experiences.
The transfer of First Circle is sadly deficient. In fact, the image quality is downright appalling, considering that the film was made in 1991... not the 1970s, as it would seem from the look of things. The image has a dull, brownish tint to it, and in general looks muddy and unclear; contrast is overly heavy, so the numerous dark scenes are too dark, and have little detail. There are also numerous print flaws as well as shimmering and wavering effects in the image.
The miniseries is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
The Dolby 2.0 sound for this production is terrible. Dialogue is consistently difficult to understand, with a flat, muffled quality to it; it also sounds harsh on occasion. The balance of the different sound elements is also badly handled: environmental sound effects like radios, people walking, shuffling papers, and so on are often louder than the dialogue, making it even harder to understand what's going on. It doesn't help the overall listening experience that the musical portion of the soundtrack is awful; it's a grating, obtrusive score that detracts rather than adds to the scenes that it appears in.
A few very minor special features are included here. A short text blurb gives some background on Solzhenitsyn and the novel First Circle; we also get cast and crew information, filmographies, and a weblink.
First Circle is probably worth a rental at best, for viewers who have read and appreciated the original novel by Solzhenitsyn; even for those who know that they like the program content, the lousy DVD transfer makes it a poor choice as a purchase. For most viewers, though, the combination of the unengaging story and the lousy transfer lead me to suggest skipping it.