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Queen To Play
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by Jay Seaver

"The lady is the strongest piece on the board."
4 stars

There should be more chess movies, although there are probably more than I think because I just haven't gotten around to seeing many (I remember Siskel & Ebert raving about "Fresh", but I missed it). It's a game where everyone knows the rules but can gain some insight over the course of the film. And with it such a game of the mind, you can see something special from close-ups of faces as expressive as those of Sandrine Bonnaire and Kevin Kline.

When the movie starts, Hélène (Sandrine Bonnaire) has never played chess; she's a maid at a small Corsica hotel. Something about a pair of American guests playing the game catches her eye, though, and she gets her husband Ange (Francis Renaud) an electronic chess game as a birthday present, something they can play together or practice individually. He's not interested, but she suddenly sees reminders of the game everywhere. She soon finds herself unable to go much further with the cheap computer, but it turns out that the American expatriate whose house she cleans for extra money, Dr. Kroger (Kevin Kline), plays a little himself, though he has to be cajoled into teaching Hélène.

Director Caroline Bottaro (who also wrote the screenplay, adapting a novel by Bertina Henrichs) is not doing anything tremendously complicated or unpredictable; from the opening where Hélène looks longingly at the American tourist couple to the pride that's on the line in her last on-screen game, the movie is cinematic comfort food for the most part. Even the obvious triangle with Hélène, Kroger, and Ange is played relatively low-key, as if Bottaro knows that the audience will roll their eyes at too much melodrama. It does get weird for a bit in there, but she rights the ship soon enough. And while most in the audience can see what she's going for with each minute, she doesn't feel the need to underline it. Yes, a scene is clearly about how Hélène's co-worker is giving up on something she loves as Hélène ponders doing the same, but there's no speech about it.

A movie doesn't need many speeches when it's got Sandrine Bonnaire's face to work with. She starts the movie as a woman worn down but not aware that she could be any other way, a very different atitude from later, when she sees the rut that her life has been in for as long as she can remember. And then, when she smiles, having found something that she really loves, it's especially brilliant, especially when she's pondering her next move in a game. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the performance and the character, though, is how we can clearly see that her new-found interest in the game is not just the wonderful discovery of a hobby or talent; there's more than a hint of obsession to it; we worry about whether this is going to become another form of disconnection.

The rest of the cast forms a fine ensemble around her. As befits the film, this is the bearded, serious Kevin Kline, grumpy through much of the film, carrying a fair amount of weight on his back, only letting joy come out briefly and never entirely on its own. His French sounds good, too. Francis Renaud does fine work as the husband, too - a character who could easily be painted as a troll, but whose actions and motivations come across as those of an imperfect but mostly well-meaning person. The smaller roles are also well-handled, with Alexandra Gentil punching scenes up as their daughter Lisa and Alice Pol maybe giving us a look at what Hélène was like before being worn-down as her co-worker Natalia.

"Queen to Play" makes the most out of its pieces, and it's no surprise that Bonnaire is a standout - the queen is, after all, the most powerful piece on the board, and Bottaro uses hers to her full potential, while the rest of the set execute their roles well enough that the movie as a whole winds up working better than it perhaps should. It is a familiar story, told in a familiar way, but a luminous performance in the center and the ability to communicate the joy of discovering a talent count for a lot.

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originally posted: 05/11/11 14:19:57
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 14th Annual European Union Film Festival For more in the 14th Annual European Union Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 16-Aug-2011


  DVD: 16-Aug-2011

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