The Queen’s Gambit–A Passion for Winning

Queen's Gambit Netflix original

The Queen’s Gambit is a fictional story based upon the 1983 Walter Tevis novel by the same name.  A Netflix original series released October 30 of this year, the drama opens with a scene of an eight-year old girl, Beth Harmon (newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy), soon to become an orphan  residing at a bleak orphanage, Methuen, under a severe headmistress.  It is the mid-1950s and there are few options for an orphan, especially a little girl.

Struggling with loneliness, adoption and being a social misfit, Beth finds solace through learning chess from the janitor (Bill Camp) in the Methuen School’s basement. As she begins to earn begrudging recognition as a chess prodigy, emotional issues  with drug and alcohol dependency compete with her drive to win at all costs.   She is adopted as a teenager into a dysfunctional family. Her adoptive mother is both a support and an enabler in her addictions. If Beth Harmon doesn’t keep on winning, she will lose her soul in her aggressive fight for deliverance from her past.  

Watching The Queen’s Gambit the viewer may feel as if chess  is an endgame for survival. Other chess movies have also made the game a metaphor for redemption and transformation.  (Think In Search of Bobby Fischer and Queen of Katwe reviewed here on November 13, 2018). 

 Although the authenticity of the chess tournaments may be surprisingly riveting to some, for others they may slow down the pacing.  Nevertheless, Beth’s inner life and that of her friends and opponents still create a compelling story.  Watching Beth struggle on her journey to becoming independent and proud, –breaking  barriers to being the first female international chess grandmaster– is mirrored in each chess move.  You have to cheer for this underdog.  And some of the creativity in photographing the chess pieces truly is brilliant (including imagining a strategic slide of the queen’s pawn on the room’s ceiling).

Highly original and  surprisingly entertaining, this  mini-series is  a daring move indeed!

Availability:  Netflix streaming.

“Ratched”–Ratcheting Up the Tension

This Netflix quasi-horror thriller creates a backstory for Nurse Ratched, the heartless villain in the 1975 Academy-Award winning classic “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”.  “What made Ratched so vile and so unimaginably cruel and unempathetic?” The answer, of course, has roots in Nurse Ratched’s  tragic early years, unhealed wounds that continue to fester.   Ratched is a female-villain origin story.  

Ratched  opens in 1947 as Mildred Ratched arrives in Big Sur to seek employment at a leading psychiatric hospital.  New experiments, believed to be cutting-edge,  have begun on the mostly affluent patients committed to their care. But there is  a brutal darkness within the hospital’s walls, literally cutting-edge, as lobotomies and other heinous surgical operations become almost daily routine.  In  eight episodes set in Hitchcock-style scenes, the diabolical scheming regurgitates similar carnage to “American Horror Story”(by the same producer, Ryan Murphy).

 In Ratched Sarah Paulson (also starring in “American Horror Story”)  plays the conniving, pathologically manipulative title character.  She performs with such intensity that the viewer wants to turn away from watching   how she entertains herself by creating chaos at others’ expense. As a predator master-planning each killing blow, Ratched’s targets all know she is coming for them but none are her match.  

The first four episodes are spellbinding, with an occasional act of kindness from Ratched to prevent a  one-dimensional  villain and sadist.   Ratched becomes understandable–if not relatable.  A subplot in which she has a tenuous relationship with Gwendolyn Briggs (the always wonderful Cynthia Nixon) has some of the best dialogue in the series. 

Nurse Ratched  becomes a metaphor for the corrupting influence of institutional power and authority.  And in Ratched, almost everyone is amoral.  Mildred’s co-worker and adversary, Nurse Betsy Bucket (the terrific Judy Davis), has the same ice-cold authoritarian blood. And Edmund, Mildred’s brother (Finn Wittrock), is both the embodiment of evil and a hopelessly wounded victim.   

The second half of the mini-series stands in stark contrast to the first.  In Episode 5 the story goes into a dizzying spiral downward in both plot and structure.  Charlotte Wells (the astonishing actor  Sophie Okonedo) is a patient being treated for severe multiple personality disorder. Why she is introduced and so poorly interwoven with the other characters is puzzling.  Okonedo, in a role not worthy of her in spite of sensational acting,   unravels the first half of what otherwise would have been an extraordinarily riveting narrative.  The first four episodes could stand alone as a far more integrated whole.  

Conclusion:  Watch for a very exciting story for the first half.  Stop if you don’t have time or the inclination to finish what is a very disappointing downhill narrative .

Marcella –Battling Inner Demons

 

Marcella series

Promoted as a Scandinavian noir detective series on the streets of Britain, Marcella is written and directed and produced by Swedish screenwriter Hans Rosenfeldt, creator of The Bridge. Two seasons on Netflix, Marcella  delves into the psychology of a deeply troubled London detective.

In Season One Marcella Backland (Anna Friel) investigates a cold case involving a serial killer who appears to have become active again. At the same time Marcella also has to deal with her disintegrating personal life, where her husband, Jason (Nicholas Pinnock), has made the decision to leave her and take their two children into his custody. In addition, her soon-to-be ex-husband is suspected of being involved with the murder of his former girlfriend, Grace. Due to traumatic blackouts Marcella cannot recall her own confrontation with Grace.

 In Season Two Marcella investigates a pedophile, who has victimized and murdered her young son’s best friend and other young boys and girls. The suspects include an arrogant millionaire, a 1970s rock star with dementia, and his talent agent. Her estranged feckless husband has become engaged to a nurse, putting their children in the middle of an ugly custody battle. Marcella’s blackouts continue, and she seeks counseling to help her remember –under hypnosis–what happens.

Both seasons of Marcella delve into the psychology of a deeply troubled and flawed character, whom some viewers will find difficult to empathize with. Tortured and battling her own demons while trying to solve some of the most gruesome crimes on the streets of London, Marcella is challenged by doubt and “impostor syndrome”, not believing in her own capabilities to discover the murderers.

In the final episode of Season Two we see Marcella end her denial, admit she is not well, and descend into an abyss. We are waiting to see how she claws her way out in the projected Season Three.

In 2017, Friel was awarded the International Emmy Award for Best Actress. The structure of the narratives in Marcella are so complex that a second viewing is recommended. Could the narratives have been clearer? Yes, but still not so convoluted as to pass on this one. Not as riveting as The Bridge in several of its versions, but nonetheless highly original and psychologically riveting.