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Austin Chronicle The Gambler

By Marjorie Baumgarten

NOVEMBER 1, 1999: 

D: Károly Makk; with Michael Gambon, Jodhi May, Polly Walker, Dominic West, Luise Rainer, William Houston, Thom Jansen. (Not Rated, 97 min.)

The life and writing of Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky is artfully merged in this film adaptation of his short 1866 novel The Gambler. A British production helmed by Hungarian director Károly Makk, this English-language movie provides an interesting perspective on the story behind the story. The saga of Dostoevsky's writing of The Gambler offers wonderfully dramatic background material for telling a story such as this. Heavily in debt due to his gambling obsession, Dostoevsky had foolishly signed away the rights to all his past and future works unless he delivered a new novel within 27 days. With time running short, the 45-year-old author hired a 20-year-old stenographer, Anna Snitkina (May), to help him with his work. Characters and situations in the novel strongly parallel events in the writer's own life, and the movie swoops in and out of these two realities quite gracefully. Strangely, however, the film lacks emotional power. The characters are treated more as chess pieces than as blood-and-guts human beings. Despite excellent performances and romantic settings, we never feel any involvement with these characters' circumstances. Michael Gambon uses a full arsenal of thespic devices to bring life to the role of the declining Dostoevsky, but it seems a furious tempest in a tiny teapot. None of the other actors equals his presence but for Luise Rainer, the back-to-back Oscar winner (The Good Earth and The Great Ziegfeld) who returns here to the screen after an absence of 50 years. She brings a vivid energy to her role as the story's most recent character to be smitten by the gambling bug. Likely to have more resonance for literary scholars than general moviegoers, The Gambler is an iffy bet for sheer entertainment.

2 Stars

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