The only true democracy in Europe" was how Fyodor Dostoyevsky described the casino in Wiesbaden, where submission to the laws of chance leveled many a class distinction. Whether radical politics, nihilist principles, or extreme masochism inspired the Russian writer to gamble, the roulette wheel consumed his fortunes repeatedly. The Gambler, Hungarian director Karoly Makk's carefully crafted and richly atmospheric adaptation of Dostoyevsky's eponymous novel, interweaves its story of gaming and erotic obsession with a period of 27 days in the writer's life, when his hopes for future solvency lay in that work's speedy completion.
At 45, the desperately debt-ridden author agreed to deliver a novel by a certain date, or his unscrupulous publisher would own everything he would ever write. In Makk's film, Dostoyevsky (Michael Gambon) is suffering from a nasty case of writer's block, when the frightfully efficient Anna Snitkina (Jodhi May), a student stenographer, appears at his door. After the requisite contest of wills, they get down to work, and the camera takes off into the swirling realms of fiction. There, in a sinister resort town, a young tutor (Dominic West) strives to win the love of a beautiful woman (Polly Walker) by earning large sums at roulette. Her stepfather, a general and closet gambler, is awaiting his mother's death to free himself from mounting debts. When the grande dame (screen legend Luise Rainer) turns up alive and kicking, all bets are off.
Skillfully flashing back and forth between the empires of the imagination and unnerving reality, Makk winds these parallel stories into a thick coil of passion and disillusionment. Gambon is excellent as the snarling but tender, devout and messy, epileptic genius. The gradual growth of May's doglike devotion is initially grating but mirrors the facts of history, in which the enormous risks of love appear to have won, against all odds.
Directed by Karoly Makk
At Film Forum
Through August 17
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