Gorky Park Review

Where is Gorky Park? Moscow. What is it? Well, Gorky Park is the most famous of Moscow's public parks and gardens and exists outside of this film and the original novel. It is situated south of central Moscow and attracts large numbers of both local and foreign visitors to its amusements. One of its main attractions is a Ferris wheel, which permits a good view over the park and, during winter months, many of the lakes and paths are flooded, then frozen to form an ice-skating rink. The park runs for approximately 3km along the Moskva River and, for those of you interested in going, there is a charge to enter the park on Fridays and weekends. In the west, Gorky Park is most famous for the fictional discovery of three dead bodies sometime in the early 1980's.

The film opens with the discovery of these three bodies buried beneath the snow in Gorky Park. Each one was shot a number of times and specifically once through the mouth to destroy any connection to dental records and their faces and fingerprints were sliced off. The chief investigator, Renko (Hurt) attends the scene of the crime to being pooling evidence but is interrupted by Major Pribluda (Fulton) of the KGB, who disturbs the crime scene in what Renko believes is a ploy to destroy the evidence. Furthermore, Pribluda attempts to take over the case but Renko refuses saying that he is already involved, pointing out that the murders are not yet proven to be a matter of national security and must be handled as a routine crime.

Troubled by the Pribluda's sudden arrival on the scene, Renko is sure of the KGB's involvement but is also concerned about the presence of two Americans - Jack Osborne (Marvin) and William Kirwill (Dennehy) - who appear to be working towards separate goals. Finally, there is a young woman, Irina (Pacula) whom Renko is convinced holds the key to the murders. With nothing making sense, Renko and his team begin sifting through the evidence in the hope of linking all the clues to make sense of the murders. Soon, Renko finds his fears confirmed as the corruption at the heart of the Soviet Union might not only be to blame for the death of the three victims in Gorky Park but may be putting his own life in danger.

Scripted by Dennis Potter (famous for The Singing Detective, Pennies From Heaven and many, many other wonderful examples of British television) and directed by Michael Apted (the year before Channel 4's P'tang Yang Kipperbang and in between 7/14/21...Up programmes), the 1983 adaptation of Martin Cruz Smith's novel met with a certain amount of criticism when first released, mostly from fans of the original novel but by no means restricted to that group. The majority of comments were directed towards William Hurt's portrayal of Arkady Renko, who is an arrow-straight policeman seemingly oblivious to the corruption throughout Communist Russia. Actually, Hurt isn't bad but it is Brian Dennehy and Lee Marvin who impress most of all. Dennehy's Kirwill is the type of rough cop he could play so well, as also seen in First Blood, but in looking at Lee Marvin's performance here, filmed only four years before his death, whilst he often played a morally ambiguous character, typically good but prepared to bend the rules a little to achieve his goal, his character in Gorky Park is an entirely amoral businessman. The fact that both play Americans in Russia belies the fact that this is not an entirely political thriller, at heart a crime movie set in a politically sensitive time in which the west was seen to be the land of the free whereas Russia was a nation of repressed workers.

Regarding this climate, in Anthony Burgess' novel Honey For The Bears, his hero, Paul Hussey, concludes his adventure of trying to sell nylon dresses in Leningrad with the words, "Freedom...whatever it is", bringing to an end a tale that finds him discovering not only the labyrinthine nature of the Russian black market but both his own and his wife's repressed homosexuality. Hussey struggles in Leningrad with an inability to deal with the local population appropriately - he offers a dress to a local doctor who is confident of the formation of a stable Russian system based on Communism and such actions eventually attract the attentions of the secret police to take the dresses off Hussey, whom they deem as a corrupting influence. Burgess, who attempted a similar trip in 1961, notes through Hussey that Russia is a country bloated with cosmonauts but starved of consumer goods. Freedom, if it existed at all in Communist Russia, was as elusive a concept to the greater population as popular support was to the apparatchiks of the Communist Party.

As funny as Burgess can be, amusing rather than odd though the latter is occasionally apt, his considered opinion of the Soviet Union is clear. As with his more famous novel, A Clockwork Orange, Honey For The Bears debates the nature of freedom but this time, considers how an individual living in a totalitarian state can determine their own existence within terms dictated by the authorities. Where the Soviet Union was concerned, this involved either defection (escaping to a sympathetic country in the west) or by subversion from within. Leaving aside Burgess' humour for suspense, Martin Cruz Smith, in his 1981 novel, Gorky Park, examined both decisions within the Soviet Union - the three dead bodies in the park representing those who tried to flee the country and the dangers inherent in attempting to do so, with his determined policeman Arkady Renko being representative of the working population who thought to remain but did so whilst retaining their individual freedom, even if it was to be considered a little ideologically unsound.

Still, Renko manages to uncover a solution to the crime against the plodding investigations elsewhere in the militia and against the meddling of the KGB. What Martin Cruz Smith managed to do, in closing Renko's story in this manner, was to flip the traditional western crime thriller over, reinforcing the differences between a western and a Soviet thriller still further. In a typical western society, it is the renegade, uncontrollable cop that eventually solves the crime whereas in Gorky Park, it is Hurt's solid investigator, dedicated to process and paperwork who is able to solve the crime.

Otherwise, the film isn't bad if a little slow but this is more as a result of trying to tie in so many disparate investigations into a single plot about ninety minutes in. If there is a big problem in doing this, it's that the eventual resolution of the plot is over too quickly - within the space of ten minutes, the investigation in Moscow is cleared up and the film moves from a bathhouse in Moscow to a hotel in Stockholm with a brand new twist that is introduced so quickly that you suspect a good ten-to-fifteen minutes was removed to speed things along. One suspects that this is as a result of the film being an adaptation of a fairly thick novel and that Dennis Potter was forced to make sacrifices to maintain a reasonable running length but it could still have been handled better.

Worth a final mention are the actors employed outside of Hurt, Marvin and Dennehy who, whilst good in their roles, are let down by their failure to adopt an accent. Insofar as the action remains in Moscow, this is not a problem as everyone is either a Russian or an American but as soon as the actors move to Stockholm for the film's conclusion, trying to figure out which actor is on which side becomes tricky. Not even David Croft's 'Allo 'Allo was so sloppy in its use of accents. Lowest point? Alexei Sayle showing up as a bent KGB informant complete with unreconstructed Cockney accent. Terrible...


Gorky Park has been transferred anamorphically with an aspect ratio of 1.6:1 and looks fine if unspectacular. There is a very small amount of print damage and shadowing at various times throughout the film, including what looks like a fingerprint in the film's final scene. Otherwise, the transfer is very sharp with little blurring.


Despite the Internet Movie Database listing this as being originally released with a Stereo soundtrack, the film has only been transferred onto DVD with a 1.0 Mono soundtrack that, whilst possibly being considered by some as a major step back, isn't actually bad. Clearly, there is no channel separation to test but the sound is clean with a good dynamic range - in particular, contrast the music playing in Gorky Park with the silence in the surrounding woods.


As Gorky Park has been released in MGM's low-price Thrillers set (RRP of £12.99 but no doubt available for a lower price if you look carefully), it has only been made available with one bonus feature:

Trailer (2m10s, 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic, 1.0 Mono): This is a brief run through the highlights of the film that fails to give much away.

This is a disappointingly singular bonus feature for this release as the Internet Movie Database list The Making of 'Gorky Park' from 1983 and directed by William Riead, who would appear to have made quite a number of such features over a ten year period beginning in 1976. Really, as the feature exists, MGM should have tracked it down and included it here.


I've always considered this film both smarter and better than it actually is. In all likelihood, this may have something to do with Dennis Potter's involvement or possibly William Hurt who, around the time this film was made, was acting in sharp and sassy dramas such as Body Heat and Kiss Of The Spider Woman. Watching this once again after a gap of many years, that impression is still with me. Regardless of seeing this film now and finding faults in it, I can't get away from the feeling that I'm simply missing something...

Otherwise, personal feelings aside, you may find something here of value. By no means is it a bad film, simply one that lacks a fluid story. The acting is good throughout, the location shoot in Helsinki, which replaced Moscow so don't bother looking for the Kremlin, is attractive and the story is resolved of a sort within two hours. It's not stunning but I'm happy to own this disc. Maybe someone out there will feel much the same.

6 out of 10
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