At the Flicks

The Queen’s Gambit

Drama miniseries
(U.S.A., 2020)
Written and directed by Scott Frank

Review by Lois Siegel

I thought at first that one would have to know how to play chess to enjoy this series. I was incorrect. The Queen’s Gambit has become the most-watched mini-series on Netflix. A story full of suspense, surprises and dark moments, it could be called a “chess thriller.”

Chess was and may still be considered a man’s game. This is the fictional story of a young female orphan who became a champion chess player at a time when few women played chess competitively in the U.S. or anywhere in the world.

Elizabeth (Beth) Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) is placed in the Methuen orphanage for girls after her mother dies. She is nine years old. The residents sleep on cots in one huge room, and children are sedated to make them compliant. She meets Jolene, who becomes her friend and advises her: surround yourself with good people.

At the home, she is given the job of cleaning the classroom erasers in the basement where she comes upon Mr. Shaibel, the janitor, who is sitting at a table moving strange objects around on a board. Beth watches, curious as to what this game is. Shaibel tells her he is playing chess. Beth asks him to teach her how to play this game. He gives her a book: Modern Chess Openings.

Beth eventually leaves the orphanage, adopted by a man and his wife. Her new mother, Mrs. Wheatley, is kind and caring. Her father is not. He ignores her. Beth starts to follow the chess tournament circuit with her adoptive mother, mostly winning, but also losing, with devastating results.

By 1966, Beth is an upcoming star and starts to play against the best. In 1968 in Moscow, Beth finally gets to go to the most important tournament in her life. The top four players are Russians. A CIA agent goes with her. She wears a black and white dress, looking very chic. She has grown up.

Beth beats the former world champion, Luchenko, a mop-haired old Russian. She is 20 years old. Her next opponent resigns after four hours. Then she faces Borgov and plays “the Queen’s Gambit.”

It should be noted that chess players write down their moves each time. In reality, players make their moves quite slowly; in the movie, to avoid long pauses, the chess pieces move more quickly.

But the story is not just about Beth’s success on the board; it also weaves around her struggle with addictions to drugs and alcohol.

The Queen’s Gambit is the most-watched miniseries on Netflix. It has fuelled an upsurge of interest in playing the game. Cambridge, Ontario was the site of principal photography starting in August 2019. Location shooting also included Las Vegas, Cincinnati, Kentucky, Mexico City, Moscow, Berlin and Paris. Anya Taylor-Joy, the actress, was not a chess player; she had to learn the game and chess theory so she would look convincing in the film.

The film is based on the 1983 book The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis. It is a great read. Tevis first became famous for his book The Hustler in 1959. His other novels include The Man Who Fell to Earth, Mockingbird, Steps of the Sun and The Color of Money.

Tevis died from lung cancer at the age of 56 in 1984. His wife, Jamie Griggs Tevis, wrote the book My Life With the Hustler in 2003 – it conveys interesting details about Tevis’ life.

I was a student in two of Walter Tevis’ English classes at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio: literature and creative writing. I had to get special permission to attend the creative writing class, which was a small seminar. Tevis had some sort of condition that made him drool in class. He apologized a lot. He had an ulcer. I remember one day when he mixed up the chalk and his cigarette and started puffing on the chalk.

I was the only girl in my high school chess club in Akron, Ohio. We once played at an all-boys school. My school coach said I had to walk home if I didn’t win. I did win, and the boy I beat invited me to have dinner at his parent’s house on the weekend. My uncle Melvin taught me how to play chess when I was quite young. He was a chess champion in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Rotten Tomatoes gave The Queen’s Gambit a 99-per-cent approval rating.

Available: Amazon, Indigo, Penguin Random House Canada, Netflix
Running time: 393 minutes
(series of seven episodes)

Arch of Triumph

Directed by Lewis Milestone
(U.S.A., 1948)

Review by Paul Green

Ravic: “The dignity of man, the beauty of woman, the innocence and subtlety of love, a quack in a dirty cellar, then this.
Veber: “By now you should be tough.
Ravic: “One is never tough, but one can get used to a lot of things.
Veber: “That’s what I mean.
Ravic: “But with some things, never.”

I could not resist this snippet of dialogue between two doctors washing up after a failed attempt to save the life of a 21-year-old woman doomed by a botched abortion. The scene comes near the beginning of Lewis Milestone’s film adaptation of the 1945 novel of the same name by the German writer Erich Maria Remarque.

Ravic, a brilliant but stateless surgeon, works illegally under the protection of his colleague Veber and is played by Charles Boyer in what is possibly his finest role. The film’s narrator refers to Paris – it is the winter of 1938 – as “an island of light” in the mounting darkness of Europe. He introduces us to the new European citizen, the refugee; some, like Ravic, are fleeing from the Nazis while others, like Ingrid Bergman’s Joan Madou, are refugees from life itself.

A few critics have compared Arch of Triumph with Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film Casablanca. While the goings-on at Rick’s Café Américain are not without interest, I would argue that author Remarque, who also wrote All Quiet On The Western Front, is painting on a much broader canvas, that of the human condition. The writer’s ambition is on full display here, and the classic themes are all present – war and peace, doomed love, exile, loss, injustice, torment and vengeance. They are set against a backdrop of dimly lit rainy nights in Paris and scenes of tender abandonment in elegant cafés filled with desperate people who have nowhere to go and all the time in the world to get there.

It is in this maelstrom that Ravic spots Joan Madou one rain-soaked night on a bridge looking down at the Seine. Is she thinking of jumping? Apparently not, but she refuses to go home so he puts her up in his hotel room before heading off to work at the hospital. Next morning, Ravic learns why Joan won’t go home, and now he must get her out of a jam or he’ll be in trouble himself.

Poor Ingrid Bergman scarcely resembles the glamorous wife of a noble resistance hero that she played in Casablanca. She is still radiant, but more like one of Fitzgerald’s “lost generation,” a lost soul who has been unlucky in love. “I’ll see that you get the first prize for incoherence,” Ravic mutters in exasperation as he tries to gain some insight into her situation.

An early flashback reveals that Ravic was forced to flee Austria where the Gestapo had questioned and tortured him and a woman companion for information they didn’t have. The woman dies under torture. Ravic was released. While he has sworn to revenge himself on his Gestapo tormenter, von Haake (Charles Laughton in an unsubtle performance), Ravic is shocked to see him in civilian dress (not his black SS tunic) outside a café near the Arc de Triomphe. It is an interesting subplot that might have done with a little more development.

The many café scenes are well done, and Ravic, sometimes accompanied by Joan, looks quite at home, sipping brandy and coffee, reading Paris-Soir. These scenes are ably assisted by Boris Morisov (played by Louis Calhern), once a colonel in the Tsar’s Guards and now a gaily bedecked doorman at the International. A first-rate character actor, Calhern is perfectly cast as Morisov. He plays chess with Ravic and keeps him grounded with trenchant philosophical observations and sound advice. “God bless your eyes,” he is always saying to Ravic.

Our star-crossed lovers carry on as best they can, even managing a trip to Antibes on the Côte d’Azur. Back in Paris, Ravic stops to help an accident victim and attracts the unwelcome attention of a policeman who suspects he is German. He has just a moment to telephone Boris who must break the news to Joan. And she must not get involved. Ravic is to be deported, not for the first time.

In the late summer of 1939, Ravic has returned and is still pursuing his Nazi nemesis as the war edges closer. He has also reconnected with Joan, but it is no good. In his absence, she has become “une femme entretenue”; she won’t let Ravic quit her but is quite unable to break with her wealthy benefactor. They are at a standoff, and Ravic still has things he must do.

While the cast is excellent and the chemistry between Bergman and Boyer is very convincing, it is chiefly the world-weary philosophical dialogue in pre-war Paris that makes this film the minor masterpiece it so clearly is, at least in the view of this columnist. Lastly, the theme of the refugee, these stateless people who “have lost their membership in the human race”, is still with us. Meanwhile, as Ravic observes at the end when war has been declared, “Well Boris, this is the end of our waiting.”

In English.
Running time: 114 minutes
Available on VHS only at Glebe Video
Also available for purchase online in Blu-Ray format.

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