Here's something you don't see everyday: a movie about chess that treats its subject matter as intensely as if it were football or baseball.
I can't recall a movie with this much chess in the history of cinema. There's a great deal of moving pieces and strategizing in Searching for Bobby Fisher, but did that have a scene where two people play out a game verbally, move by move, for minutes? I think not. Delivering more chess action (I'm using the term of "action" very, very loosely), Queen to Play is likely the Holy Grail for chess fanatics.
But is it any good? Queen to Play is a little too restrained to be a great film, but it is hard not to be swept into the story, no matter the viewer's interest in the game of chess. Similar to the incredibly over-clichéd American uplifting sports movie, the message of Queen to Play is one of inspiration, but since this is a French film, it takes a low-key approach to delivering its enthusiasm for uplift. Queen to Play is quaint, harmless entertainment that will make you pull out your dusty board from garage or attic and play a few games.
Piece by Piece.
Helene (Sandrine Bonnaire) is a maid in a picaresque French town. Her days are a numbing parade of rooms that she is paid to clean, whether in a hotel or a private residence. Her home life is stifling as she copes with an inattentive husband and bratty teenage daughter. One morning, Helene unexpectedly witnesses a chess game between two people on the balcony that is erotically charged (not sure this is that believable since we are talking about a chess game here), but soon afterward Helene is gazing longingly at the beautiful pieces that the cultured Dr. Kroger (Kevin Kline) has in his study.
Helene is forced to wrangle up an electric model to play against a computer since no one else will play her. She then makes the offer that will change her life: clean Dr. Kroger's house for free in exchange for lessons. Kroger becomes Helene's mentor and the pair are spending hours discussing the importance of kingside castling and playing blitz. It's a small town, so tongues start to gossip about Helene and Kroger's affections that might involve more than just who is playing black.
Queen to Play is a pleasant movie, but that's part of its problem. It's too amiable for its own good. Even when Helene is facing the difficult elements of her life -- husband, daughter, the death of her dreams -- it's done with a level of cordiality that is completely bereft of tension. The chess scenes should be rousing as Helene's skill increases, but there's no spike upward in Queen to Play's intensity. Helene is just as quiet and subdued after her ability takes off as when she was cleaning hotels and houses.
I would have liked more sparks from Helene. There's a lot of subtext related to chess for Helene that, unfortunately, remain hidden below the surface. From the confines of the checkered board, there's buried romance aching to get out, the invigorating newness of possibility or rekindled relationships. We see these events occurring, but we don't really feel them as the movie chooses to take an unemotional path.
A strange thing about this film is the casting of the grey-bearded Kline as Kroger. It's always a little disconcerting when I see an American actor in a foreign movie speaking in a second language. The fine English actress Kristin Scott Thomas has seamlessly merged her career the past few years between English and French speaking roles. Tilda Swinton went Italian for last year's I Am Love. Now, Kline gives into his inner Francophile and delivers a quiet performance as the tender, wise and sad man mourning a departed loved one who discovers as much as Helene does by rediscovering this game that he loves.
In its own extra-subdued way, Queen to Play wants to unleash our dreams with its simple story about a normal woman discovering herself in the middle of her life. This woman could live anywhere and her new passion could be anything, in this case she resides in France and chess is the thing that might actually alter her future. Or, at least make it more livable and exciting. We should all be so lucky to find new enthusiasms as we grow older, regardless how exciting or dull it is. It could be chess or skydiving, as long as it unlocks our ability to dream.
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