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GAMBLER, THE (director/writer: Károly Makk; screenwriter: from the novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky/Katharine Ogden/ Nick Dear/Charles Cohen; cinematographer: Jules van den Steenhoven; editor: Kevin Whelan; music: Brian Lock; cast: Michael Gambon (Fyodor Dostoyevsky), Jodhi May (Anna Snitkina), Polly Walker (Polina), Dominic West (Alexei), Luise Rainer (Grandmother), William Houston (Pasha), Johan Leysen (De Grieux), John Wood (The General), Angeline Ball (Mlle. Blanche), Tom Jansen (Stellovsky; Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Charles Cohen/Marc Vlessing; Independent Artists; 1997-Hungary/UK-in English)
“There seems to be a lot missing in this shortened telling of the story within a story for it to be more than moderately effective.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Hungarian writer and director Károly Makk’s film mixes fiction with reality as it focuses on the gambling compulsion of the haggard looking 45-year-old Fyodor Dostoyevksy (Michael Gambon-he was 56 at the time). It is based on an episode in the Russian novelist’s life as he was working on his novel The Gambler; it portrays the author as a gambling addict which leaves him periodically bankrupt and desperate for funds, as it crisscrosses between the characters in the novel he’s creating and his present life.

The film opens in 1870 with a woman and child seeking someone in a casino at the German resort of Baden-Baden. It then goes into flashback and tells the author’s story from St. Petersburg in 1866. Because of gambling debts the author signs a bad agreement with his slimy publisher, Stellovsky (Tom Jansen), who has paid off his debts as an advance and the author agrees to deliver a new novel in 27 days. Should he fail to meet that deadline, the author will forfeit the rights to all his published books to Stellovsky without further payment.

The only one who can save the author from this cruel fate is a prim blonde, wide-eyed 20-year-old stenographer, Anna Snitkina (Jodhi May), who has taken this job on the recommendation of her teacher at the stenography school. The author has hired her to take dictation around the clock, as she moves into his residence as he rushes to meet the deadline. This creates a problem for her because she has been asked by a dull lowly placed government bureaucrat in the ministry branch to marry her and live a routine life with him, which she is considering; she is also in need of money to pay for the funeral of her dying father, which is why she takes the job even though it’s at first unappealing. Her boyfriend is not pleased that she has taken this position with the radical Dostoyevksy, who is spied upon by the ministry and has already been exiled to Siberia to serve prison time in 1850 for his political activities against the czar.

Anna is dissuaded by the author’s carefree and reckless lifestyle including his many drinking bouts, his epilepsy attacks, his parasite stepson Pasha who tries to come onto her and speaks ill of the author, and by learning of his debts and his inability to pay her unless he finishes the novel–which must be at least 160 pages.

The book is semiautobiographical, it includes his real-life beautiful girlfriend Polina (Polly Walker) as a character. She plays the femme fatale part of the stepdaughter to a weak-minded general (Wood). Polina loves the author’s fictional alter ego, Alexei (Dominic West), who in turn is madly in love with her. Alexei is the dashing young tutor to the gambling addicted general’s children. The general has been suckered by Mme. Blanche (Angeline Ball), a sexy but wicked French courtesan, into losing his inherited fortune at the gaming tables and has indebted himself to her scheming partner, De Grieux (Johan Leysen), a phony French aristocrat. De Grieux in turn has seduced the voluptuous Polina, who also owes him a huge sum in gambling debts. She petitions Alexei to sell her jewels and play roulette with that money to win back her freedom, but he loses. To add to the melodramatics, the wealthy family matriarch comes to town and enters the casino for the first time (the matriarch is played by the 87-year-old Luise Rainer-she returns to films with a grand entrance after a voluntary absence of more than 50 years and after winning two Oscars for her work in “The Good Earth” and “The Great Ziegfeld”). Soon she also becomes addicted to the roulette wheel and starts losing which upsets her son, the general, that the money he expects to inherit from her is being lost. It also upsets her grandson Alexei, who likes the vibrant but frail elderly lady.

There seems to be a lot missing in this shortened telling of the story within a story for it to be more than moderately effective. The dramatics seem mechanical, and the dialogue is uninspiring. The film’s charm lies in the strange relationship that develops between the receptive Anna and the moody author. Anna slowly grows to feel connected with the author’s pangs of despair, genius, and defects in character. She grows into a woman before the story is over and marries him, and lives an exciting but poverty-stricken life. The film never reaches great literary heights, and never goes beyond being mildly interesting. But Gambon’s wonderful multilayered dissolute performance and Jodhi May’s refreshingly sincere one, makes up for some of the film’s miscues.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”