Film reviews round-up: Molly’s Game, Sanctuary, Persona, Bright

Based on a true story, Molly's Game – the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin – gives us Jessica Chastain’s second force-of-nature performance in a matter of months

Geoffrey Macnab
Tuesday 26 December 2017 15:32 GMT
Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba star in Molly's Game
Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba star in Molly's Game (Rex)

Molly’s Game


Dir. Aaron Sorkin, 140 mins, starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Jon Bass, Michael Cera, Chris O’Dowd

Molly’s Game gives us Jessica Chastain’s second force-of-nature performance in a matter of months. Chastain was in cyclonic groove earlier this year as the relentless, pill-popping Washington lobbyist in Miss Sloane and she is back again here as the equally driven heroine, Molly Bloom.

Molly is a former Winter Olympics hopeful who earned fame and wealth but then courted notoriety and disgrace by hosting high-stakes poker games for Hollywood stars, hedge-fund managers and Russian mobsters.

The film marks the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin (writer of The Social Network, Moneyball and The West Wing), and its main recommendation, aside from the brilliance of Chastain, is Sorkin’s ingeniously crafted screenplay.

Biopics and courtroom dramas are staples of the release schedules. Most are tackled in the same leaden way. They take us through their subjects’ lives in rigidly chronological fashion or mechanically present arguments for the prosecution and defence. Sorkin’s approach is very different. He jumps into Molly’s story headfirst, leaps backwards and forwards in time, and gives her a voice-over to fill us in quickly on the details that less inventive films would labour over.

“When I was 12 years old, for no particular reason, my back exploded,” Molly blithely explains the agonising spinal surgery she endured in order to keep her skiing career on track. She’s a caustic-tongued high-achiever who is very good at figures and very precise about every aspect of her life – but that doesn’t stop her hitting a pine needle and having a freak accident that leaves her lying in a bloodied heap during final qualifying for the Olympics, her sporting career in tatters.

Sorkin takes only a few seconds to sketch in this background before fast forwarding 12 years to Molly being busted by the FBI for running an illegal gambling operation.

United States v Molly Bloom in the court case at the centre of the movie. It’s a sledgehammer against a nut, and Molly herself is betting heavily on the favourite.

The conceit here is that Molly is looking in on her own life, offering her own sassy commentary on it, at the same time that she is fighting the court case. She is the object of her own forensic analysis. Just as when she is running the card games, she sees every angle. She is as alert to her own vanity and delusions as she is to everyone else’s. What makes her such a refreshing movie character is her complete lack of self-pity and her refusal to make excuses, even when things go very wrong.

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In keeping with its heroine, the film moves rapidly, sketching in Molly’s time as a cocktail waitress in California and telling us how she came to work as an office assistant to Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), the sleazy estate agent who gets her into the poker world in the first place.

Molly’s Game is based on a true story. Sorkin doesn’t try too hard to conceal the tracks. The real Molly ran poker games with a $10,000 buy-in at the Viper Room in Los Angeles. The Molly in the film is based at the Cobra Lounge, at the edge of the Sunset Strip. The ruthless and manipulative movie star Player X (Michael Cera) is thought to be based on actor Tobey Maguire.

All the details of the poker games – the music the gamblers listened to, where they sat, what cocktail food they ate between hands – are chronicled by Molly as we see montages of the card players in action. She is an ingenue, teaching herself sophistication along the way, listening and using poker as her “Trojan horse” into high society. Molly may share a name with one of James Joyce’s most famous characters but she is a Russian-Jew, not the Irish colleen that some of her more sentimental clients think her to be.

Sorkin throws continual references to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, inviting us to view Molly as a contemporary equivalent to the women killed as witches at the Salem trials. She encounters sexism at every stage of her life, whether being browbeaten by her father (Kevin Costner), a professor who tells her quitting is for losers, or being forced to jump to the bidding of all those gamblers like Player X. Prey to the “unfair whims of men”, she (not they) is put on trial.

The press write about her as if she is poker’s equivalent to Hollywood madam, Heidi Fleiss. In fact, she is discreet, hard-working and enterprising. She pays her taxes and tries to ensure her games are legal. Idris Elba plays her lawyer, Charlie Jaffey, initially disdainful but eventually won over by her integrity.

One of the central ironies here is that Molly, in spite of her involvement in the shady world of gambling, is indeed rigorously and aggressively honest. She doesn’t name names. She seems a minor character to justify an entire movie. The world she inhabited was sleazy and characterised by gossip. She was only a minor cog in it. Nonetheless, Sorkin clearly sees her as heroic. She wouldn’t put others in jeopardy regardless of the plight she found herself in.

The film transcends its subject matter. It’s not just a story about a former vodka waitress and office assistant who organised high stakes card games for the rich and famous. By the final reel, Molly Bloom has been transformed into a Joan of Arc-like martyr, albeit who speaks and behaves like Katharine Hepburn in an old screwball comedy. This could have seemed absurd and trite and Molly’s Game could easily have slipped into extreme sanctimoniousness. Instead, thanks to Sorkin’s caustic, witty screenplay and Chastain’s blazing performance, it never loses its momentum or its fatalistic humour.

Sanctuary (15)


Dir. Len Collin, 88 mins, starring: Kieran Coppinger, Charlene Kelly, Robert Doherty, Patrick Becker, Valerie Egan, Jennifer Cox

It’s a sad reflection on the narrow-mindedness of UK cinemas that so few have been prepared to book Len Collin’s funny, big-hearted and affecting new comedy-drama. The film follows a group of characters with “intellectual disabilities” on a day out to the cinema in Galway with their hapless but well-meaning young care worker, Tom (Robert Doherty). During the trip, with Tom’s connivance, Larry, who has Downs Syndrome, and Sophie, who is epileptic, arrange a tryst in a hotel room.

“You never think of them like that, with urges,” the receptionist observes of the would-be lovers, oblivious to how callous she sounds. The film has been credited with changing a law in Ireland which (until recently) made it illegal for those with intellectual disabilities to have sexual relationships.

Christian O’Reilly’s screenplay combines elements from the typical feel-good drama with harsher insights into the lives of the protagonists. They’re all yearning to escape the strictures of their supervisors, who, however well-meaning, treat them as if they are children or dolts. A couple of men sneak away to the pub for a few illicit pints. Two friends roam around the local shopping mall. Another couple enjoys a stolen kiss in the back row of the cinema. Tom, the care worker, is like someone trying to herd cats – he just can’t get the people in his charge to go in remotely the direction he wants. It doesn’t help that he is so busy courting the hotel receptionist that he is permanently distracted anyway.

The production values here are modest and some of the dialogue is on the clunky side. The film, though, has a wonderful strain of blarney and whimsical humour about it. The actors (many of them from the Blue Teapot Theatre Company) give memorable performances. Kieran Coppinger plays the “lover man” Larry with an engaging mix of gravitas and mischief. His frustrations at the limitations placed on him are apparent. Without resorting to subterfuge, he can’t spend any time with Sophie (Charlene Kelly). The filmmakers extract plenty of humour from the jokes about condoms and hangovers, from the scenes of raucous singing on the bus and karaoke in the shopping mall, and from the sequences of Tom wandering forlornly round the pubs, cafes and shops of Galway, trying to reassemble the party.

The tone of the storytelling feels very benign at first. Then, we begin to learn more about what these people have endured in the past – the sexual abuse and bullying that some have had to take for granted, and their boredom at the mindless tasks they’re forced to perform in the workshop. Just when we expect the film will provide a nice cosy and upbeat ending so we can all feel happy at what a good time everybody has had, we are reminded in brutal fashion of the challenges the protagonists face on a daily basis. Sanctuary emphasises how unwilling the rest of society is to treat those with learning disabilities as thinking, feeling adults with yearnings and desires of their own.

Persona (15)


Dir. Ingmar Bergman, 83 mins, starring: Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Margaretha Krook, Gunnar Björnstrand, Jörgen Lindström

2018 is the centenary of Ingmar Bergman’s birth and the year is being marked all over the world with tributes to the great Swedish director. There will be stage plays, operas, exhibitions, remakes of some of his old films, documentaries about him and new dramas inspired by him. The UK tributes to Bergman include a stage adaptation of Fanny And Alexander at the Old Vic in London and a three month retrospective at the BFI. The tributes begin with this re-release of Persona, one of his most experimental, confrontational and idiosyncratic features.

In the film, a breezy young nurse Sister Alma (Bibi Andersson) is assigned to look after the brilliant but troubled classical actress, Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), who has become catatonic.

This is a two-hander, a very intense psycho-drama, superbly played by its leads. “It’s about one person who talks and one who doesn’t, and they compare hands and get all mingled up in one another,” is how the director summed up the deliberately enigmatic plot.

Alma is “interested” in film and theatre but seldom goes. She loves to chatter. Elisabet is hyper-sensitive and registers everything. We see her staring horrified at TV footage of a burning man from the Vietnam war as if she feels the man’s pain. As part of her recovery, Elizabet is sent with the nurse to spend time near the sea.

Persona continues to be read in many different and often contradictory ways. It has a strain of viciousness about it. The film is very unsettling. We don’t know what provokes Alma to share very intimate memories of her youthful sexual experiences with her patient or to read Elizabet’s private correspondence, or what Alma is trying to achieve by taunting Elizabet about her lack of “motherliness” and her loss of a child in mysterious circumstances.

The dynamic between the two women continually changes. At times, it i’s as if Elizabet, who is doing all the listening, is Alma’s therapist and is tending her rather than vice versa. The more time the women spend together, the more they begin to mirror one another – but the more the hostility between them rises too. In one famous scene, brilliantly shot by Sven Nykvist, their faces seen to merge together. “It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit together,” Alma comments – an observation that could be applied to the film itself.

Persona has been accused of being pretentious and obscure but it remains one of its director’s most celebrated films – and one of his most provocative. More than 50 years after it was made, it hasn’t dated in the slightest. It remains as mysterious and troubling now as it ever was. What is the bizarre, surrealistic montage sequence at the start of the film supposed to mean? Why do we suddenly hear the sound of the projector and see a huge hole burned in the image we have just been watching? These remain questions without any easy or obvious answer.

Bright (15)


Dir. David Ayer, 117 mins, starring: Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Jay Hernandez, Edgar Ramirez, Lucy Fry

Joseph Wambaugh-style cop drama and Tolkein-like fantasy collide in David Ayer’s profoundly silly new feature (which has been given a very limited cinema release before heading to Netflix.)

You can just about see what the filmmakers are thinking. They see a chance to blend two very different styles of storytelling and to create something new in the process. Unfortunately, the results are laughable.

We are in a world of renegade elves and Magic Task Force Feds. Will Smith plays Daryl, a hard boiled LAPD cop who is partnered with Jacoby (Joel Edgerton made up to look like Shrek with a badly charred face), the first Orc to work on the force. We are in a futuristic world – but one which, with its burnt-out streets and marauding Latino gangs, looks remarkably like the present-day one. The Orcs are slow and heavy creatures, discriminated against by the humans but apparently very useful as linebackers in the NFL. Jacoby is despised by his fellow cops and hated by his own people, who accuse him of betraying the “old ways”.

The word is that a wand is on the street – and only a “Bright” (a fairy with lethal powers) can control a wand. To complicate matters , the Dark Lord is on the way to earth to slaughter billions and enslave all the survivors. It’s up to Daryl to save the day. His fellow police officers and the shady men from Infernal Affairs want him to betray Jacoby, but Daryl is far too upstanding to do that, even if he does owe money on his mortgage and has a family to support. Jacoby is “unblooded” but determined to prove his warrior prowess.

Max Landis’s screenplay wants to have it both ways – to be a brooding, Dystopian Blade Runner-like fantasy and a wisecracking buddy movie. At moments of maximum danger, Daryl will always come out with a flippant one-liner. “We are not in a prophecy,” he tells his partner late on. “We are in a stolen Toyota Corolla.”

The wand itself glows and has seismic powers. “You touch my wand and it will splatter you all over the walls,” Noomi Rapace’s dark elf Leilah (who styles herself as “a warrior, a princess and a lover”) warns Daryl at one stage.

Bright soon turns into a dim-witted action movie with everyone racing around in pursuit of the wand. Will Smith looks as trim as in his Men In Black days and is still able to put across the corniest lines in Landis’s script with commendable conviction. This, though, is a mess that he can’t clean up on his own. It’s a wildly misconceived movie likely to prove equally unsatisfactory to fans of LAPD dramas like The Shield or Ayer’s own End of Watch and to those who yearn to escape back to middle earth.

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