Tuesday, 19 January 2021

What I'm streaming: Pawn takes king

QUEEN'S GAMBIT

(Netflix)

They’re saying you don’t need to be a chess aficionado to enjoy this, but the games are totally central to every episode. Non-chess fans must surely wonder what the hoopla is all about.

9-year-old Beth Harmon is sent to a near-Dickensian orphanage in Kentucky after her mother’s death in a car accident. An immigrant janitor (Bill Camp) introduces her to chess and unleashes a prodigious talent. Fostered in her teens in the mid-1960s, she is soon meeting – and beating – champion players at state, national and international matches.

All the men in the story are chess nerds. Beth sleeps with a couple of them and lives with one for a while, but chess is her only real passion. The death of her foster-mother affects her less than losing a match.

Queen’s Gambit boasts superb sets (mostly hotel rooms and tournament venues) and fine performances, notably from Anya Taylor-Joy as the enigmatic Beth. Production values are very, very high: I particularly liked the stalactite chess moves Beth visualizes on bedroom ceilings. But the emphasis on the games completely swamps the story. The deaths of both her mothers lack emotional heft, as do her brief romances. This might have been better as a two-hour movie. Style triumphs over substance, but it’s a substantial triumph. And if a few thousand youngsters swap video games for chess, the series can be deemed a double success.

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

What I'm reading: If you go down to the Swamp today ...

 

This is a sequel to The Last Child, revisiting young Johnny Merrimon ten years after he confronted the terrifying abduction of his sister. Now in his twenties, Johnny lives a hermit existence in The Hush, several square miles of forest and swamp he has inherited in North Carolina. A billionaire neighbor bids to buy The Hush to extend his hunting reserve. Johnny doesn’t want to sell. He has dreams and visions centering on the 1850s when his ancestor and namesake fell foul of a female shaman with malevolent healing powers. 

A descendant of the shaman responds to a summons to return to the county and cross paths with Johnny Merrimon. And there’s Something lurking in the swamp (the author calls it “Something”), a dark presence that for more than a century has been savagely culling unwelcome intruders.

Like Stephen King, John Hurt elevates the Gothic thriller into the realm of literary fiction. The Hush brings some echoes of The Shining, where it's the location itself that threatens the mental and physical health of trespassers. The story builds to a shattering climax as Merrimons past and present reach a "confluence" on a hill in the center of the swamp. A couple of loose ends suggest that this may be the middle segment of a projected trilogy.

Tuesday, 5 January 2021

What I'm streaming: Pride without Prejudice

BRIDGERTON (Netflix)


Goodness me, this is the most startling recreation of Regency England since Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy found zombies on their lawns a few years ago. Bodices are more spectacularly ripped than we usually see in Jane Austen adaptations, although the fundamental challenge of finding a rich titled husband for your cosseted (and corseted) daughters is still at the heart of the story. This is a Georgian Downtown Abbey, quite a bit raunchier and a lot more downmarket.

What sets Bridgerton apart is its “colour-blind” casting. Simon, Lord Hastings, our dashing hero (and boy, is he dashing!) is played by a black actor (RegĂ©-Jean Page), as are many of Queen Charlotte’s queen’s courtiers and even the Queen herself (Golda Rosheuval). It takes a bit of getting used to – I kept thinking (very unPC, unBLM) that we were in Louisiana and (oh, happy thought) the slaves had taken over the plantation. But the casting is the key ingredient that gives Bridgerton its big dollop of freshness. Phoebe Dynevor’s Daphne Bridgerton, whose on-off relationship with Lord Hastings is at the core of the drama, gives a feisty modernist performance, but she rather pales (if I may use that word) in comparison with some of the other debutantes.


The court of Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuval)

The Simon-Daphne romance gets too much screen-time, as does Miss Thompson’s unmarried pregnancy and the mystery identity of gossip-monger Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews who, alas, does not appear onscreen).
Bridgerton plays out as a period soap, which is what Jane Austen’s intricate social comedies tend to be reduced to for viewing audiences. Mad King George is barely glimpsed, and the Prince Regent not at all. The one gay couple at court seem to have fallen foul of censorship or more likely the cutting-room shears; let’s hope this is redressed in Series Two.

Series Two? A decade from now we’ll be in Series Ten. This is pure tosh, lavishly costumed and backgrounded, and it will run and run.

Lady Danbury and Lord Hastings (Adjoa Andoh and Rege-Jean Page)