Two players. 32 pieces. 64 squares. Within the 8-by-8 grid of a chessboard, anything's possible.
The French drama "Queen to Play" is a familiar story of an unhappy person learning to break out of her shell by finding a new passion. We've seen it over and over in the movies, but "Play" has an understated charm and convincing performances - and a palpable love of chess - that makes it work well enough.
Helene (Sandrine Bonnaire) is a cleaning woman who works at a hotel on the gorgeous Mediterranean island of Corsica. She is surrounded by beauty and glamour, but none of it touches her. She keeps her head down, scrubbing the floors and washing the sheets all day, then goes home to a nondescript house and a distracted shipbuilder husband (Francis Renaud).
One morning, she sees a couple playing chess together on the veranda of their hotel room. There's something entrancing about the scene, of lovers engaging intellectually as well as emotionally, that sticks with Helene.
She buys her husband an electronic chess set for his birthday, but he's not receptive to the idea of learning how to play. So she approaches a reclusive widower, Professor Kroger, whose house she cleans. (We're used to seeing French people on screen as stuffy elitists, so it's a nice change-up in casting that the prickly Kroger is actually an American expatriate, played by Kevin Kline.)
Kroger reluctantly agrees to teach Helene how to play chess, and they work matches into her weekly visits to clean the house. Pretty soon, the two bond over the chessboard, and Kroger cleans his own house so they'll have more time to play. Helene starts obsessing about chess, working out moves in her head, seeing chessboards in the black-and-white tiles on the hotel veranda.
It's those performances that really carry "Queen to Play." Bonnaire gives a quietly magnetic performance, showing Helene's transformation through small but telling facial expressions, or just the way she carries herself. Kline (who speaks almost entirely in French throughout the film) is also good as the formidable, arrogant Kroger, who learns to appreciate his cleaning woman as an intellectual equal.
The movie ends, as most movies like this do, with a big tournament, where the provincial Helene has to throw down with disdainful master chess players. Director Caroline Bottaro (who co-wrote the screenplay) wisely doesn't bother trying to follow the moves of each game, instead conveying how the match proceeds by focusing on the players' expressions.
"Queen to Play" could have been funnier for a movie that's being sold as a comedy, and some of the family subplots involving the intransigent husband and their teenage daughter go nowhere. But when you see Helene and Kroger hunched over a chessboard, sheer delight in their eyes as they survey the pieces, you're interested in their next moves.