Reviews – The Life Ahead; The Crown; The Queen’s Gambit

If you are trying to find a way to entertain yourself as we enter what passes for the holiday season, Netflix does have some fine offerings for your viewing pleasure.

For example, the luminous Sophia Loren, who has been absent from screens for a while, has returned in The Life Ahead, directed and co-written by her son, Edoardo Ponti. The film is another adaptation of Romain Gary’s novel The Life Before Us (it was previously filmed as Madame Rosa starring Simone Signoret) and it tells the story of Rosa, an elderly woman (Loren) who looks after children of women generally “of a certain trade.” She agrees to take in Momo, a tough twelve-year old Senegalese street kid/small time hustler after they “meet not-so-cute” (he robs her and knocks her down). Needless to say it is not a match made in heaven, since Momo is still playing fast and loose with the law and having trouble being part of Rosa’s family; for her part, Rosa is coping with financial difficulties, haunting memories, advanced age, a weakened heart.×587.jpg

Though The Life Ahead follows along a predictable path, what is not predictable is the power of the two central performances. Sophia Loren’s Rosa is a survivor in every sense of the word, and she admirably conveys grit and resilience, weariness, and a touching vulnerability. There are some memorable moments as Loren’s Rosa falls victim to her “reveries” and suddenly returns, and in her emotional shifts towards an initially recalcitrant Momo. It is an unsentimental portrayal in a role that might have become prone to pathos. The young Ibrahima Gueye is a real “find” as Momo, smart (as in “street”) beyond his years, yearning for a home yet resistant to the idea—all the while battling demons and indulging in fantasies. The film also offers some finely etched contributions from the supporting actors, including Abril Zamora’s Lola (Rosa’s friend and confidante) and Renato Carpentieri’s Doctor. In the end though, what makes The Life Ahead a “must-see” is the luminous Loren, who elevates the film with both her star power and her considerable acting experience. Perhaps another Oscar awaits…

I think it’s safe to say that Prince Charles and the Royals are not going to be too happy with Season 4 of The Crown, even though it is one of the most entertaining yet. For one thing, this season (set in the 1980s and covering Charles’ courtship and marriage to Diana) consistently suggests that the Queen (Olivia Colman) is well-intentioned but irrelevant and inconsequential, challenged by both the changing times and the growing outspokenness of prominent members from both England’s “territories” as well as England itself. The Queen is also at a loss as to handle her own unhappy family, who have not reaped the emotional rewards that privilege might have bestowed.

Diana and Charles are front and center this season, and both Emma Corrin and Josh O’ Connor are perfection in their portrayals of flawed individuals. Corrin’s Diana gets what she wants—only to find she is ill-equipped to cope with “the rules of the game.” O’Connor’s Charles comes off as a weak-willed pseudo “man’s man” who allows himself to be pushed into a marriage which he tends to only half-heatedly while reserving any active emotional involvement in phone calls (and visits) with the dreaded Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell from Call the Midwife). Also playing a prominent role is Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher, who is not only a worthy adversary for the Queen, but for any politician (man or woman) who steps into her path. Regrettably there isn’t enough for Helena Bonham Carter’s Margaret to do other than to offers tidbits of advice to the Queen (generally not followed) but she does have one good showcase episode with “The Hereditary Principle.” Overall it’s an excellent season, with marriage troubles, labor troubles, social unrest, shows of strength both public and private, and many little betrayals. I think you’ll have a fine time with this season’s The Crown. 

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The Queen’s Gambit, also on Netflix, is another nicely executed limited series, adapted by Scott Frank and Allan Scott from a novel by Walter Tevis, who was also responsible for The Hustler. Whereas Tevis’ Fast Eddie was consumed by billiards, Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit is a young, orphaned chess prodigy who tries to become the world’s best chess player in spite of some pretty heavy opposition in the form of a rival Russian chess master—and an addiction to both tranquilizers and alcohol. The first episode works its magic in getting the viewer hooked, from its “present-day” opening to its extended flashback wherein we see an eight-year old Beth’s growing passion for both the game (and the drugs, alas), culminating in an ill-fated try for a “green paradise.” Later, a teenage Beth finds herself in suburbia with adoptive parents with some secrets of their own—and still hoping to prove herself in what has been a “man’s world’ of chess. The series is compelling throughout, and Anya Taylor-Joy is superb at making an emotionally reserved character interesting to watch. She has fine support from Marielle Heller as her adoptive mother, Bill Camp as an unlikely mentor, and Harry Melling, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster as fellow chess players. You may not only get hooked on the series—The Queen’s Gambit might inspire you to take up (or revisit) the game of chess.