Arriving almost stealthily but just in time to prove 2020 isn’t all bad, The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix is a riveting story of loss, genius, addiction and chess.
Smartly and economically written, gorgeously designed and shot, and with an excellent score (by Carlos Rafael Rivera) the series however, is owned lock, stock and barrel by Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Emma).
The actor plays orphan Beth Harmon and the seven episodes detail her meteoric rise through the world chess rankings. Director/writer Scott Frank (Godless) makes full use of Taylor-Joy’s eyes throughout, which seem to sometimes threaten to burn right through the screen. It’s a frequently astonishing performance, one that starts from those eyes and manifests a dark and fascinating inner life for her character. This was clearly a rather special collaboration between the two.
Based on a 1983 thriller novel by Walter Tevis (who also wrote The Hustler, The Colour of Money and The Man Who Fell To Earth), the story moves forward propulsively but never less than thoughtfully and also highlights a complicated but tender relationship between Beth and her adoptive mother, played by Marielle Heller.
The cast is uniformly good, featuring superb turns from the likes of Isla Johnston (as young Beth), Bill Camp (the care home janitor who spark’s Beth’s nascent talent) and Moses Ingram (as Beth’s closest friend, a character we should definitely have seen more of in the narrative).
But this is Taylor-Joy’s show and a great showcase for the young actor. Frank and Taylor-Joy give us a fascinating, magnetic character in Beth, and mostly avoid making her talent magical by highlighting her obsessive and destructive traits.
The Queen’s Gambit feels very much like a piece of classic Hollywood storytelling, yet rises above that with a cool boldness that feels utterly compelling.
The series brings a wonderful, stylish slice of viewing joy (sorry, not sorry) to a pretty awful year.
So I’m very late to the game with this one, but much of Joker is, of course, amazing.
I’m sure I don’t need to explain that Joker is a step away from the fairly disastrous DC Extended Universe. It’s a standalone tale, starring Joaquin Phoenix, that explores the background of Batman’s arch-nemesis, containing nods to films from Network (he’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore, indeed), Taxi Driver (you almost expect Phoenix to snarl “You talkin’ to me?”), The King of Comedy (with both elements of the plot and the perhaps too on-the-nose casting of Robert De Niro) to The French Connection (particularly in one of the shootings that takes place on a subway stairway).
But away from the greatest hits of the Easy Riders, Raging Bull generation, Joker centers around a truly mesmerising, heartbreaking and ultimately repulsive performance from Joaquin Phoenix, who thoroughly deserves every award bound to be thrown at him.
It’s absolutely Phoenix’s movie, as he dominates every inch of the screen, ably abetted by Lawrence Sher’s gorgeous cinematography, and further supported by Mark Friedberg’s bold and beautiful production design, bringing to life Gotham City by way of 1970s New York.
Director Todd Phillips surprises (in fact, shocks) with his ability to allow his lead actor to fully explore the fragility, pain and brutality which punctuates this journey into mental illness. It’s also a surprisingly sharp commentary of the selfish, unfeeling world we’ve allowed to fester around us, resulting in the likes of Trump and Johnson.
I can’t help but feel the film is something of an exercise in futility, as it takes so much care to explain away a character who ultimately doesn’t need to be explained. Heath Ledger’s multiple Joker “origins” in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight were as intriguing and satisfying as everything Phillips and Phoenix put their character through (taking two discomforting hours instead of a few pages of dialogue).
I came away almost wishing they hadn’t hooked their story to Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson’s character, but instead created their own. Is this too much of a comic book geek’s complaint?
Perhaps, but when as storytellers you attempt to give a voice to the too-often neglected corners of society in such painfully gritty terms, it then feels almost like you want to have your cake and eat it too by connecting this to a psychotic comic book villain. It’s almost as if the film is daring itself to give voice to the toxic parts of our culture likely to hold the four-colour character of the Joker aloft as an anti-hero.
I’m honestly not certain where the film stands on this, but it is undeniably deserving of greater contemplation than an immediate post-screening collection of thoughts such as these, and it’s certainly one I am curious to see again.
Regardless of these caveats, while I don’t think anything in the film (beyond Phoenix’s performance) raises it to the level of genius that’s been heaped upon it, Joker is a powerful and bold, utterly nihilistic, shattered funhouse reflection of the world around us. And that’s no laughing matter.