by Julian Graffy
It is a commonplace of Dostoyevsky criticism that the author’s personal addiction to form of intensity – gambling, passion, hatred – fuelled the plots and characters of his novels. In particular, his affair with Apollinaria Suslova in the early 1860s inspired the ‘infernal women’ of the late novels. Suslova is the antipode of the calm devout stenographer, Anna Snitkina, who took dictation of The Gambler in 1866 and became the writer’s enduring second wife.
The veteran Hungarian director Károly Makk’s The Gambler is both a version of the novel and, more centrally, the story of how conventional Anna is sucked into the passionate Dostoyevskian world. The unfortunate consequence of this insistent double vision is that both novel and biography are diminished. The film’s reading of the novel is fragmented and opaque, with much of the plot and entire characters, sadly including the eccentric Englishman Mr Astley, jettisoned. The story of Anna is developed in a predictable way. She is given a tragic family and a dull clerkly suitor, and famous episodes from Dostoyevsky’s biography (such as the arrest and mock execution, and the Siberian exile where he shared the fate of the Decembrists) are clumsily inserted by Dostoyevsky and members of his circle for the benefit of those members of the audience who might be cramming for ‘A’ levels.
But increasingly the film subsides into a mechanical succession of intercut scenes between the tale of passion and its passionate tellers, reducing art to sublimated autobiography, and downplaying the profound distinction between these two kinds of passion: the unthinking driven sensuality of the general’s entourage and the inward intensity of Anna. Her passion is, though latent, just as importunate but considerably more mysterious, as suggested by the luminous performance of Jodhi May.
In general Károly Makk is well served by his actors, with Michael Gambon as the angular, irascible author, and Polly Walker as the voluptuous Polina. All too briefly, we’re treated to the magnificent Luise Rainer as the grandmother, a part previously graced by Edith Evans, prey to the cultic thrall of a casino shot by Jules van den Steenhoven to look like a baleful cathedral.
In his long career Makk has been brilliant at suggesting the force of sometimes self-destructive passion. This was most powerfully evoked in his 1971 Love, the story of a family split by political repression in 1953 Budapest, while his 1982 Another Way sets a forbidden love affair against the compromises and evasions of Hungary after the failure of the 1956 Revolution. Both of these films draw much of their atmosphere from the ubiquitousness of prying eyes. The surveillance motif is pervasive in The Gambler too, and at least to this extent Makk stamps a personal signature on the film. Alexei and others watch the gambling, Anna records the story, Dostoyevsky’s creditors and his reptilian publisher call constantly to monitor his progress, his malevolent stepson Pasha Isaev hovers voyeuristically around the flat, while outside a police spy keeps constant vigil and Anna’s suitor, Ivan, peruses Dostoyevsky’s file at the Ministry where he works. Gradually, observation and recording turn into enthralled participation and complicity, a transgression first anatomised in Russian literature by Pushkin with the sinister German in The Queen of Spades.
But the earlier films drew their specific intensity from Makk’s immersion in the Hungarian political context. Making The Gambler he seems rudderless, reduced to addressing this quintessentially nineteenth-century story through the dull new conventions of “filming the classics”. Too often the plot’s developments are indicated through pathetic fallacy, in other words melodramatic signpost music accompanying melodramatic signpost weather (a sudden violent thunderstorm for crisis, followed by a blissful rural sunrise for its resolution). This stylistic anonymity leaves the enigmas of both Dostoyevsky’s and Anna’s personalities scarcely probed, and the sources and workings of his genius (as a postscript notes the 1860s was the decade of Crime and Punishment and The Idiot) insufficiently illuminated.