The Gambler

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Friday August 13, 1999

     Some years ago American writer Charles Cohen came up with the idea that an interplay between the unfolding of the Fyodor Dostoevsky novel "The Gambler" and the fevered, dramatic circumstances under which it was written could make a compelling film. When he saw a retrospective in New York of the films of the master Hungarian director Karoly Makk, he felt he had discovered the ideal director for the project.
     Cohen was right on both counts, for "The Gambler" is a sweeping, romantic period film in the elegant European tradition, an intricately intertwined tale of grand passion and equally powerful obsession. The deft intercutting between Dostoevsky's inventing his story and the telling of the story itself culminates in a graceful and provocative fusion of life and art. Michael Gambon gives one of his typically splendid, multifaceted portrayals as Dostoevsky, surely one of his most demanding roles. That Gambon was 56 when he made this film is no matter; Dostoevsky's hard existence would logically make him look older than his years.
     When we meet Dostoevsky, in the fall of 1866, he could scarcely be in more dire straits. At 45 he's an epileptic, given to bouts of hard drinking and is in such a desperate financial situation that in return for 3,000 rubles he signed away to his ruthless publisher Stellovsky (Tom Jansen) not only the right to publish a collected edition of his works but also the rights to all his works, past and future, should he fail to deliver a novel of no fewer than 160 pages. A friend recommends that he hire a stenographer to help him meet his deadline, and that's how Anna Snitkina (Jodhi May), a 20-year-old whiz at this new profession, enters his life.
     A lovely young woman of a good though impoverished family, Anna takes a stance of resolute independence and relentlessly efficient professionalism, but inevitably she becomes caught up in the maelstrom that is Dostoevsky's life. In time she falls in love with him and becomes determined to be the mainstay of the novelist's life.
     As Dostoevsky starts dictating his novel it comes alive on the screen, transporting us to the fictional spa of Roulettenberg, where an intricate tale of intrigue and desperation is being played out in its gambling halls and private suites. We meet Dostoevsky's alter ego, the fiery young Alexei (Dominic West), enamored of the glamorous Paulina (Polly Walker), who in turn has become obsessed with an icy, phony French count, De Grieux (Johan Leysen), to whom her stepfather, the General (John Wood), a feckless gambler, has become deeply in debt.
     As Dostoevsky, prone to compulsive gambling himself, teeters on the brink of disaster, so do his characters. But there's a big difference: The devoted and steadfast presence of Anna's love may yet triumph over Dostoevsky's demons or at least hold them at bay enough for him to survive and to continue writing.
     This film is remarkable in another way as well--the return to the screen of Luise Rainer after an absence of more than 50 years. Rainer was the first person ever to win two Oscars in a row then quit after becoming swiftly disenchanted with Hollywood. She deserves a grand entrance and that's exactly what Makk provides Rainer, whose Academy Awards were for her self-sacrificing wife in "The Good Earth" and as French star Anna Held in "The Great Ziegfeld," the first wife of the legendary showman who discarded her for actress Bille Burke. As Grandmother, the mother of the General, Rainer arrives from Moscow, elegantly gowned and borne on a throne-like chair, determined to stop her son from further squandering the family fortune. But in demanding to see the casino with her own eyes she soon succumbs to the thrill of the roulette wheel herself.
     In a film steeped in emotional turmoil and despair Rainer brings a refreshing jolt of vitality. Grandmother may be the oldest of the film's central characters, but she's the youngest at heart. Not for Rainer is the illusion of youth promised by cosmetic surgery. She wears the lines in her face honestly while her youthful spirit glows from within and lights up those large, dark, unchanged and unforgettable eyes. She was 87 at the time she filmed "The Gambler"; she is now 89 and busy promoting the film. Her presence recalls an earlier Makk coup: In 1970 he persuaded the great Hungarian actress Lili Darvas, widow of playwright Ferenc Molnar, to return home to play an aged aristocrat, lovingly sustained in her delusions by her daughter-in-law, in his most honored film, "Love."
     Jules van den Steenhoven's glowing, luminous cinematography takes full advantage of "The Gambler's" many spectacular authentic locales. May's Anna, lovely, intelligent and centered, provides an effective contrast to so many stormy figures swirling about her. "The Gambler" was surely a gamble in itself, with its parallel stories, its combustible, larger-than-life hero and its unbridled romantic spirit, but it paid off handsomely.


The Gambler, 1999. Unrated. An Independent Artists release of a co-production of Channel Four Films and UGC DA International in association with Hungry Eye Pictures & KRO Drama presentation of a Mark Vlessing production. Director Karoly Makk. Producers Charles Cohen & Marc Vlessing. Screenplay by Katharine Ogden & Charles Cohen and Nick Dear. Cinematographer Jules van den Steenhoven. Editor Kevin Whelan. Music Brian Lock. Costumes Dien van Straalen. Production designer Ben van Os. Art director Lorand Javor. Set decorator Istvan Toth.. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. Michael Gambon as Fyodor Dostoevsky. Jodhi May as Anna Snitkina. Polly Walker as Paulina/Apollonia. Dominic West as Alexei. Luise Rainer as Grandmother.

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