||Writer-director Bernard Rose's HDV picture "ivans xtc." is said to be based on Leo Tolstoy's novella "The Death of Ivan Ilych," and both works do in fact deal with the way in which a largely unreflective man deals with the reality of terminal illness and imminent death. Both also share the same structure, beginning with the protagonist's funeral and the fundamentally selfish reactions of those who'd been his acquaintances and then going back in time to recount the circumstances of his demise. But while Tolstoy's Ivan was a prim and proper judge with a wife and family, Rose's is a shark-like Hollywood agent with a nubile girlfriend, impossibly arrogant clients and a huge drug habit. Each, however, is consumed in his own way by mindless ambition and a drive to succeed in the eyes of the world. And it's only in the face of looming annihilation that they come to confront the essential emptiness of their lives.
Tolstoy's story is, on the surface, very simple; it's the spiritual questions that the author, a death-obsessed individual himself, raises in the course of its narration that give it profundity. By comparison Rose is limited by the change of medium. He accomplishes very skillfully what can be put on film: he depicts very well the externals of his Ivan's world and the details of his illness- -indeed, this aspect of the story is accomplished better than in the original, whose spareness leaves most of the surroundings to the reader's imagination. Though the specifics of the Hollywood rat-race are familiar, Rose makes them amusing and revolting nonetheless (he's helped enormously by shrewd supporting performances from Peter Weller as a preening superstar and James Merendino as a writer who's bumped from a directing gig). He's even more fortunate in having Danny Huston as his protagonist; in a brave turn that runs the emotional gamut, the actor is by turns raging and marvelously controlled, odious and strangely sympathetic, terrified and calmly self-destructive. Huston takes advantage of each opportunity Rose provides to deepen the character, and by the end one feels with him--as with Tolstoy's Ivan--the horror of the end each of us must face.
What Rose has been unable to do, even with Huston's help, is to elucidate the inner workings of the dying man's mind the way Tolstoy could on paper. "The Death of Ivan Iylich" isn't terribly complicated as a narrative, but its theological and existential reflections are profound; Rose treats the narrative brilliantly, but can't really dramatize the Russian writer's deeper ruminations. The only way that he could probably have attempted to do so was to use a first-person narration by Ivan; but that would have been as bad a solution as it would have been back in 1962, when some wrongly suggested that James Mason's Humbert Humbert should have had a continuous voice-over in Kubrick's "Lolita." Better that Rose should have aimed to accommodated as much of the original as can be comprehended in a visual medium rather than attempting to turn his film into a treatise on how death should affect the way we look upon life.
Thus "ivans xtc." isn't a perfect translation of Tolstoy's little masterpiece; what's impressive is that it gets onto the screen just about as much of the novella as one could reasonably expect, and is engrossing and moving in its own right. It should also be mentioned that the picture is one of the most successful HDV efforts thus far; there are still some problems with night sequences shot in natural lighting, but the grittiness seems appropriate in this case, and at some points Rose achieves some truly delicate effects. The eclectic choice of music--including bits of Wagner, Mozart, Bach and Chopin as well as more modern pieces--is also a distinct plus.