She took out her notebook. But he spoke so fast she couldn't keep up. He paced the stuffy room as he dictated, drifting toward the stove. He lit one trembly cigarette after another, flicking them half-smoked into the ashtray. In October 1866 Anna Snitkina graduated from stenography school and agreed to help Feodor Dostoyevsky scribble out a novel. She didn't realize he had only 27 days to complete it in order to win a bet, and that she would stay with him while he wrote it.
Hungarian auteur Karoly Makk, who garnered the Special Jury Prize and international acclaim at Cannes in 1971 for his film Love, attempts in The Gambler what literary scholars have tried for decades to do: conform the author's fascinating biography with his fiction. At times it is difficult to distinguish one from the other. The novel The Gambler was penned to fend off creditors (Dostoyevsky was no stranger to the roulette table). He married his secretary, twenty-year-old Snitkina, and they wandered across Germany, Italy, and Switzerland for years mired in poverty. Until The Brothers Karamazov was published in 1880, Dostoyevsky received little compensation for the vast sum of his writings. Soon after his celebratory return to St. Petersburg, he died before his sixtieth birthday.
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Adapting novels to the big screen has always posed many problems. For the most part the cinema tells its stories through pictures, not words. A character's dialogue holds less importance than action (or the reaction of characters in conflict). In this case Makk has made the translation from page to screen more muddied, mixing elements of Dostoyevsky's life against the backdrop of his soapy novella. Instead of complementing each other, the contrasting scenes drain the film's energy without reaching a strong dramatic conclusion. And the director makes too much of a stretch in his portrayal of the book The Gambler as autobiographical. Parts are, yes, but parts are fiction as well. Dostoyevsky's love story is not a re-creation of fact. It's a dream, an imaginative reconstruction of the past. The result of Makk's effort, especially if you are unfamiliar with Dostoyevsky's real life, is simply confusing.
The book revolves around a Russian general (John Wood) in danger of losing his fortune. His fetching stepdaughter Polina (Polly Walker) flits between a fake marquis (Johan Leysen) and an obsessive lover, Alexi (Dominic West), who promises to win back her wealth. These events parallel the love affair between Dostoyevsky and his secretary. In an attempt to accentuate the similarities between the book and reality, Makk resorts to confusing camera tricks (which include innumerable dissolve cuts, overly dramatic slow-motion effects, jumbled montages, and the repetitious gravity-defying shot of a ball bouncing around a roulette wheel).
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The dialogue is equally awkward and anachronistic (Snitkina sounds a tad too protofeminist for a nineteenth-century Russian girl). The most compelling performance comes from veteran actress Luise Rainer, who steals the show as a gambling grandmother -- her first role in 53 years. Michael Gambon, with his soft, latexy face and overdeveloped vocal chords, does an epileptic parody of the mad-genius Dostoyevsky, making him seem like a candidate for Alcoholics Anonymous. Jodhi May plays Snitkina with stylistic sullenness. This is Masterpiece Theater for Dummies -- a Cliffs Notes mix of British people in fancy costumes speaking with Pepe Le Pew accents (though the film was shot entirely in Makk's native Hungary).
Dostoyevsky's major works depict the slipperiness of words as something dangerous and corruptive. Words can't lend meaning to an absurd world. Unfortunately in the landscape that Makk has created, the world is not existentially absurd, just muddled and confused.