A May-September love story wrapped in an elaborate life-imitating-art package, “The Gambler” is a literate, well-acted costumer centered on novelist Dostoyevsky that too often puts the brakes on its emotions. Limited niche business looks likely among upscale auds attracted to such fare, but the ambitiously structured pic doesn’t have the smarts to break much wider. To put it bluntly, the gloomy Russian scribe isn’t the sexiest subject for a frock movie.
Arresting opening, set in the German resort of Baden-Baden in 1870, has a poorly dressed young woman with a young child entering a posh casino in search of someone. Film then rewinds to “a true story” four years earlier in much grayer St. Petersburg, where hard-up student stenographer Anna (Jodhi May) applies for a job with Dostoyevsky (Michael Gambon), a 45-year-old grouch who lives in a chaotic apartment and goes through secretaries faster than a knife through butter.
The writer, an epileptic addicted to the roulette wheel, is a walking disaster area. He lives with his sleazy, money-grabbing stepson, Pasha (William Houston) and has only 27 days to write a novel of at least 160 pages. Otherwise, he’ll cede all rights to existing and future works to a publisher, Stellovsky (Thom Jansen), who has bought up his gambling debts. So far, Dostoyevsky hasn’t penned a word — and also has to keep cranking out regular installments of the serialized “Crime and Punishment.”
After quitting, Anna returns to the job in order to pay for her father’s funeral. As the novel “The Gambler” emerges from Dostoyevsky’s imagination and on to paper, it becomes clear that what Anna is transcribing — the story of a young couple, Polina (Polly Walker) and Alexei (Dominic West), trying to get out of hock at the gambling tables in the fictional German resort Roulettenburg — is closely based on the writer’s own life. Pic crosscuts between the present and the book-in-progress, with the two strands conjoining at the end, when the film’s opening scene becomes clear.
Script is exceedingly cleverly constructed: Not only does the novel parallel Dostoyevsky’s addiction, but, in the fiery Alexei and the strong, pragmatic Polina, its main characters also shadow the growing attraction between Dostoyevsky and Anna. There’s no sense of strain in the comparisons, and the various tumblers satisfyingly click into place in pic’s final reels.
Where the viewer feels shortchanged is in emotional engagement. Like many movies that perpetually crosscut, “The Gambler” rarely builds a head of steam in one narrative before jerking back to the other. Though thematically linked, the two sides of the picture are like fire and ice: Lensed in bright, vivid colors, Roulettenburg is a cauldron of emotion, sex and high-stakes living; St. Petersburg, in wintry blues and grays, is a joyless city of marginal existence.
Veteran Magyar director Karoly Makk, in his best film for some time, keeps a fairly strong hand on the tiller, and the intimate Dostoyevsky-Anna scenes strongly recall many of his Hungarian movies in their faded splendor and emotional weariness. But he fails to let the movie go with the flow.
Thesps are mostly OK, from Gambon’s truculent writer, spitting bile and self-loathing, to Walker (excellent) and West (intense) as the young lovers. As Anna, May is variable, often hard-pressed to make much impression opposite the more experienced Gambon. It’s notable, however, that the pic briefly gets a real lift when the legendary Luise Rainer, a back-to-back Oscar winner, bursts on the scene in a wonderfully showy part as a gambling-addicted granny.
More of Brian Lock’s sweeping music might have helped to knit together the film’s various tempo changes. Other tech credits are all good, with period detail naturally caught and Hungarian locations convincingly standing in for the real thing.