Movies

Beyond The Multiplex: The Chess Thriller ‘Pawn Sacrifice’ And The Twisty ‘The New Girlfriend’

As unlikely as it now seems, 1972 found the world in the grips of a chess obsession. This was largely due to the accomplishments of Bobby Fischer, a spookily gifted player from Brooklyn whose ascent in the game brought him to the frontlines of global politics, thanks to a World Championship match in Reykjavik, Iceland that pitted him against the Soviet star Boris Spassky. With the reputations of both sides of the conflict at stake, the match became a high-stakes event for those on both sides of the Cold War. It’s enough to make a man crack under the pressure, if he wasn’t cracked already.

Pawn Sacrifice re-stages that match-up — and the political and media circus around it — after leading up to the event with a depiction of Fischer’s formative years. Its best moment connecting the two comes early. The opening scene shows Fischer (played as an adult by Tobey Maguire) alone in his hotel room on the eve of a game with Spassky. In the grips of paranoia, he’s afraid of being spied on, maybe by his opponents, or his own government, or forces that exist only in his head. From there, the film cuts to Fischer as seen through the lens of a camera held by an unseen watcher, first as an adult, then as a child, where his mother’s left-wing politics made being under surveillance a real possibility. As the saying goes: Just because you’re paranoid…

From there, Pawn Sacrifice takes a pretty straight path from Brooklyn to Reykjavik. Fischer wows everyone he encounters, first as a self-taught, chess-obsessed child, then as a teenage prodigy, doing little else along the way except picking up admirers. Eventually, these include lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), who does triple duty, also working as Fischer’s agent and his unofficial contact with the State Department, which views Fischer as a useful PR tool, despite his professed lack of interest in politics or most anything but chess—at least initially. “For him, Vietnam and The Beatles never happened,” Marshall explains. But in time, Fischer gets dragged into a world beyond chessmen and boards.

Directed by Edward Zwick, a veteran of unsubtle-but-effective dramas such as Glory and Love & Other Drugs, Pawn Sacrifice, doesn’t offer much in the way of surprises or insight. It’s shot handsomely and builds in intensity as the mental illness that would later make Fischer first a recluse, then an international pariah—thanks to his tendency to spout off anti-American and anti-Semitic theories—takes hold. But it never fully captures how Fischer became Fischer or gets beneath the surface of its political themes.

There’s much to recommend it anyway, though, thanks to some sharp lines from screenwriter Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Locke) and first-rate performances from a cast that includes Peter Sarsgaard (as Fischer’s sympathetic fellow grandmaster, and Catholic priest, William Lombardy) and Liev Schreiber, as Spassky. Playing Spassky as a stone-faced rock star, Schreiber gets some of the film’s sharpest moments, particularly when, like Fischer, he starts to get obsessive about eliminating any distractions during the match. It’s as if Fischer’s madness is catching, even among those seemingly too cool to let anything worry them. But it’s largely Maguire’s movie, and he’s captivating whether quietly playing games in his head or talking himself up to the press while throwing out barbs to his opponents. He gives Fischer a crazed charisma of the sort that, Maguire’s work keeps suggesting, could, and almost certainly will, tip into madness.

****

Accusations of insanity and perversity get thrown around in The New Girlfriend, as well, but they never quite stick to the accused. The latest from the reliably compelling French director Francois Ozon, the film adapts a 1985 short story by British mystery writer Ruth Rendell, and part of what makes the film work so well is the way Ozon plays it as a thriller, creating an atmosphere of dread that suggests something horrific just over the horizon—then never letting it arrive. There are secrets and lies at the heart of the film, but they’re not that kind of secrets and lies. Some of them are of the sort characters won’t even admit to themselves.

Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) and Laura (Isild Le Besco) have been friends since childhood, even though Laura has always stayed a step ahead of her friend, turning boys’ heads before Claire, marrying first, having a child before her, and, as the film opens, even beating her to the grave by dying young. Claire has kept her jealousy unspoken, but, an early montage, she wears it on her face, Laura’s death leaves her with a sense of responsibility to her widower David (Romain Duris) and their young child, and with a sense of unresolved guilt — and some other unresolved feelings, too.

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