Everyone has their ‘thing’. For some it truly can be a passion. Perhaps you know someone who reads all of the time, or a marathon runner, or a connoisseur of fine whiskey. My ‘thing’ is film and to a lesser extent music. I cannot stop watching and reading about movies. For my wife, she cannot stop exercising and to a lesser extent reading. For my new blog follower, her ‘thing’ appears to be a deep love of English literature dominated by Jane Eyre.
In Queen to Play (Joueuse), Helene’s (Sandrine Bonnaire) passion is chess. Helene is Corsican and does not realize what her passion is until middle age. She has a teenage daughter, a marriage which is just going through the motions, and a soul crushing job as a hotel maid which does not give her time for hobbies, let alone a passion. While cleaning the room of a well to do American couple one morning, she eyes them from a distance while they play chess, a game she has only heard of, but never actually saw in action. The couple is very much in love and radiates a sense of ease and relaxation towards one another which Helene probably never thought possible between couples. Her brain now cannot stop studying the chess pieces, their respective movements, and the back and forth drama of a chess match.
Enter Kevin Kline as the tutor/mentor. Helene is employed as his cleaning lady and notices he has a chess board. Overcoming her natural shyness and aloofness, she asks to play him and they develop a sort of student/teacher bond over chess and later on, life. The most effective parts of the film occur as Helene interacts with her family and the strain which chess eventually puts on them as it alienates her husband and sets her up for mockery around town. The film’s pacing and the audience’s interest in Helene actually tapers off towards the end when she takes her newfound skills public and enters a tournament. The rise of the cleaning lady busting through the glass ceiling of professional chess plays more as a cliché gimmick than a feel good self improvement moment. The tournament lacks a certain amount of drama or suspense which is should have by that point. In fact, all scenes actually involving the playing of chess and the wary eye movements as opponents observe each other doesn’t particularly work either. More of Helene and her life on Corsica and less actual chess (unless the director figures out a more effective way to show it) would raise this film up a bit more.