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66th BFI London Film Festival: The Queen of Spades

Part of the London Film Festival’s remit extends not only to showcases of new creations, but to unearthing, restoring, and presenting some rough diamonds from cinema’s past: films that for whatever reason deserve and could use, the leg up a festival can provide. Believed lost until its rediscovery six decades after its initial release in 1948, The Queen of Spades, an adaptation of the Alexander Pushkin short story, was restored for exhibition and release on home video, with its champions including the likes of Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese. The sound leaves a little to be desired, cutting out in some places (this does sometimes happen for stylistic reasons and I’m not referring to those moments), but what is there is very high quality, as is the picture. Before we go any further though I must advise that you not read anything else about this film besides my review. Every synopsis I’ve found online, be it on Letterboxd or the BFI’s own website, spoils the entire story as succinctly as it can. I don’t know why this should be the case, perhaps the authors felt that the film would sound too boring if they didn’t tempt audiences with the good stuff, but it was a much duller watch than it might have been as a result and your viewing shouldn’t have to share the same fate as mine. 

What I will reveal about the plot is that it centers upon an ambitious Captain in the Russian Army (Anton Walbrook) whose covetousness of his noble-blooded comrades’ standing leads him to seek his fortune and the secret of success at cards. This, he believes he may have found, when he meets the pretty young ward (Yvonne Mitchell) of a wealthy aged countess (Edith Evans) rumored to have sold her soul for the perfect hand. The story is treated with all the moralism and indulgent scope one associates with the pre-Revolution classics of Russian literature, as the young girl finds herself torn between the deceitful fortune seeker and the noble prince (Ronald Howard). 

Yvonne Mitchell and Anton Walbrook embrace in The Queen of Spades
Yvonne Mitchell and Anton Walbrook in The Queen of Spades.

Walbrook makes for a great antihero. He has looked upon the world, seen its injustice and resolved to do whatever is necessary to bend it to his will, and play by its cruel rules. Mitchell plays her stock innocent role well enough, can’t fault her for her character’s insipid niceness, nor can Howard who at least gets to play one half to a fantastic climax. The confused, fragile and demanding dowager is left to fill the role of primary foil to the social-climber, but the two get disappointingly little screentime together, and have little rapport, with Evans sadly short on the cunning and headstrong mind that could’ve formed a credible rival to Walbrook. Like many films of the golden age, The Queen of Spades is hampered by its moral wetness and the resulting bland simplicity of its heroes. By the end, one finds oneself rooting for the villain, as despite the immorality of his deception, he’s the only one been keeping you interested for the last hour and half.

It is admittedly a pretty slow journey—though in my case it was not helped by having the film spoiled for me the moment I opened the viewing link (thanks again)—with Walbrook’s attempts to inveigle himself into the young girl’s heart, and thence to the palace, rather lacking in stakes or much heat or intrigue. With the characters who supposedly like one another being kept apart, there’s not much chemistry between anyone, as one fears the interior monologues that likely supported their relationship on the page were not effectively interpreted onto screen. The film does wake the hell up in its last fifteen minutes though, when after an effective supernatural visitation, we get a blinder of a card game, the tensest one I’ve seen outside of Casino Royale or that one episode of Only Fools and Horses

The production and costume design are terrific throughout, Walbrook’s luminous silk shirt deserves particular mention, and there are a few elements of period and set pieces that tickle the interest. In their sole film roles, Maroussia Dimitrevitch and Violette Elvin make a heck of an impression as a gypsy singer and dancer duo, and there are a great couple of supporting turns from Ivor Barnard as a deliciously sinister bookseller and Miles Malleson makes an ever-welcome appearance as a bon-vivant moneylender. The cinematography from Otto Heller—I think it’s fair to say, the great Otto Heller—is excellent, and shows the sets off in great gothic style. Even if the drama is often a trifle staid, it’s always cast in the best light. 

The Queen of Spades might not be a true classic, but it has been called such by some very creditable voices and they’re not getting it from nowhere. It see-saws in quality but comes out ahead whenever Walbrook’s onscreen, and the climax really is dynamite.

Written by Hal Kitchen

Primarily a reviewer of music and films, Hal Kitchen studied at the University of Kent where they graduated with distinction in both Liberal Arts BA and Film MA, specializing in film, gender theory and cultural studies. Whilst at Kent they were the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and began a public blog on their Letterboxd account.
Hal joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020 and resumed their current role of assistant film editor in November 2020.

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