This post is made up of four short reviews of movies that are only related in the flow of my own stream of consciousness. I was thinking about the first film one day and one thing led to another, and this was the result.
I first stumbled on the movie Dark Horse (2016) when I was looking for The Dark Horse. I had seen a trailer for the latter on the DVD of another movie, and it looked like it might be good. The description of Dark Horse looked interesting too, so I put it on my Netflix queue. By the time it arrived, I had it in my mind that it was a movie about an actual event, but in reality, it is a documentary.
Jan Vokes is a barmaid in a small Welsh mining town. Her father bred parakeets, and she followed in his footsteps, breeding other animals among which I think were greyhounds. I wish I could remember exactly, but I don't have easy access to the film now. In any case, she had a background in breeding animals, and when she overheard Howard Davis, a well-to-do patron of the bar, talking about his unprofitable foray into horse racing, she decided to give it try.
When she told her husband, Brian, what she intended to do, he said something to the effect that she was daft, but he also said that when Janet put her mind to something, you could be sure that she would do it. (I had to laugh at that, because I have heard my husband say the exact same thing many times.) Then, despite the fact that Davis had sworn to never get involved with horses again, she convinced him to help, and persuaded 100 locals to join a syndicate in which they would contribute £10 a week toward the expense of breeding and racing a horse.
Despite the fact that they had so few resources and had to go to the bargain end of the stud book to achieve their goals, the syndicate succeeded in breeding a winner. Dream Alliance gained increasing respect from the racing community who originally snubbed the syndicate, and in the end won the Welsh Grand National.
Louise Osmond, the director of the film, did a wonderful job of interviewing the members of the syndicate and telling the story in a delightful way. Godfrey Cheshire at RogertEbert.com described the film as crying out, “to be a Mike Leigh film starring Jim Broadbent and other members of the director's stock company,” and this is as accurate a description of the film as you could find.
The Dark Horse (2014) begins with a large Maori man wearing a large quilt, wandering through the streets of a New Zealand town muttering to himself. He turns into a second-hand shop, and when he sees a chessboard on the counter, he immediately snaps into a more understandable monologue and begins playing chess. He is still obviously disturbed and the proprietors call the police who take him into custody and back to a facility for the mentally ill.
The Dark Horse is based (to what degree I don't know) on the life of Genesis Potini, a man who had in his youth had a reputation as an up-and-coming chess master. His severe manic-depression, however, put an end to his early promise. The story of the film begins as he is released into the custody of his brother, Akiri, who is the only person willing to have Genesis in his home.
Akiri is not the ideal custodian of a mentally ill person as he is the leader of a gang, the Outcasts, and his home is the place where the gang hangs out. Besides the Outcasts, Gen has to deal with his resentful nephew Manu, who has had to give up his room for his uncle. Manu is, understandably, a troubled young man who is torn by his desire to make his father happy by joining the gang, and his desire for a different kind of life.
Gen, seeing a poster advertising the Eastern Knights, a chess club for underprivileged youth led by an old friend, offers his services as a teacher for the group. The friend isn't at all thrilled with Gen's offer, but is finally convinced to see how things go. Needless to say, it isn't all smooth sailing, but the story of the Eastern Knights, the relationship between Gen and Manu, and Gen's struggle to stay on top of his illness make for a compelling film.
I also enjoyed the French chess movie, Queen to Play (2011). Sandra Bonnaire stars as Hélène, a woman who cleans rooms in a pastoral hotel in the Corsican countryside. One day a couple tells her to go ahead and clean their room while they are sitting on the balcony playing chess. As she cleans, she watches the beautiful couple—the woman in her slip--on the balcony, intent on their game and one another, and feels a growing hunger. After the couple leaves the hotel, Hélène finds that the woman has left the slip behind in the bed, and she takes it home and begins to wear it, a sort of talisman of the life that she wants to lead.
Hoping to be able to play chess with her husband, Hélène buys him an electronic chess set for his birthday, but he is completely baffled by the gift. He does try to learn, but the complexity of the game is too much for him, so she tries to teach herself to play.
Hélène has another job cleaning the beautiful home of a reclusive and irascible Dr. Kröger (Kevin Kline). She finds that he owns a chess set, and asks him to play with her. He declines, but she is persistent. She even offers to work for free if he will, and he says they will try once. When he sees how serious she is about the game, and how much it means to her, he agrees to teach her.
The picture at the top of this section comes from a NPR review by Ella Taylor that describes Queen to Play as not-too-terrible, but I think it's a good deal better than that, and that Ms. Taylor has some kind of an ax to grind, particularly with Kevin Kline. I hesitated to link to the site, but I liked the picture.
Roger Ebert, on the other hand, says this about the film:
I wonder if someone who doesn't love chess as much as I do would like “Queen to Play” as much as I did. Such a person could enjoy the transformation of a Corsican maid into strong chess player. They might read it as a story of female empowerment, of a woman asserting herself in her marriage and in her job. That would be fair enough.
But what I enjoyed was the way the film summons up the pure obsessive passion that chess stirs in some people.
I live with a bit of that in my husband, but, since I can't grasp the spatial aspect of the game, I'm not a chess enthusiast myself.
The last film is about yet another French housekeeper who has a an inner passion, and that passion is for painting. Like The Dark Horse, Séraphine (2009) is a movie about the life of a real person, a person who is also mentally ill. Séraphine Louis (played by Yolande Moreau) was born in Arcy (Oise), France in1864. She was very poor and and seems to have had a rather limited intelligence. She used the money from her work cleaning houses to buy the materials to paint the pictures which she secretly worked on at night.
Séraphine's work was accidentally discovered by art collector, Wilhelm Uhde, who was a neighbor of one of her employers. He was very impressed by her work, which he exhibited, and her paintings became very popular. Some of them are quite beautiful, but as you can see from the above picture, many of them had a rather disturbing quality, and they came by it honestly. Séraphine was very ill and ended her life in an institution where she was unable to paint.
This is a good movie but it is very sad and very disturbing. I would only cautiously recommend it. In fact, I'm not even sure that I want to include it in this post, except that it ties in so well with what's gone before. And then it shows that even the most unlikely people can have deeply hidden talents. Her works are still exhibited.
As I think about these four movies, I realize that the one thing that they all have in common is this discovery of gifts in unexpected places: the barmaid who breeds a race horse, the manic-depressive who mentors children, the chambermaid who plays tournament chess, and the housemaid who creates masterpieces. It's odd that I never noticed that until now.
—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.