Aaron Sorkin may currently be the world’s best-known screenwriter – a fact that may be lost on audiences who watch films and TV series for their starry casts. Yet once you’ve experienced Sorkin’s writing, it’s unmistakable – he writes torrents of words, delivered at speed, often by characters who walk while they talk. The brilliant TV series The West Wing? The films Moneyball, Steve Job, A Few Good Men? That’s Sorkin.
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If you’re familiar with these works, yet knew nothing about the origins of his new film Molly’s Game, you’d recognise it as ‘Sorkinesque’ within half a minute. Jessica Chastain plays the real-life title role – American Molly Bloom, a smart, strong-minded, formidably glamorous woman who became a ‘gambling madam’ and built a multi-million dollar empire from organising poker games for very rich men – a handful of them famous into the bargain, if not specifically identified.
The estimable Jessica Chastain, star of Zero Dark Thirty, and one of Hollywood’s best A-list actors, plays Molly and narrates her story in voiceover from the opening scene: we see her as a hopeful Olympic downhill skier, who retires from the sport after she sustains a serious back injury on one of her descents. We see this awful accident, and in best Sorkin style, Chastain talks it through at break-neck pace, squeezing a dizzying number of facts into her monologue.
We then learn she returned to college after her skiing career, disappointed yet determined to make her mark somehow. This zeal springs from her fraught relationship with her hard-to-please psychologist father (Kevin Costner, in one of his best performances in several years).
A parade of fast and furious monologues describes her story as it unfolds: Molly takes over a poker room and makes it thrive, having stolen her former boss’s contacts list. And then her life becomes complicated: she increases the ‘buy-in’ her rich gambler friends must pay to sit at her table; she develops a drug habit; and unwittingly she welcomes members of Russian crime gangs to her games. Inevitably the FBI become interested, arrest her, and the US government attempts to sue her. At which point she hires an attorney (elegantly played by Idris Elba) who initially cannot quite accept her as an innocent, but comes to regard her in a more charitable light.
It should be emphasised that all the above is exhilarating fun – and most of the credit must go to Chastain, who makes the most of the role. Molly is a terrific character – resourceful, forceful, funny and outwardly fearless. Chastain should be visiting more than a few awards ceremonies before too long.
As for Sorkin, he both directed and wrote this story, and his fingerprints are all over it. Not everyone is a fan: some detractors are irritated by his word-heavy scripts and find the themes his work too often smugly male. On the first charge, it’s fair to say some audiences will find the continuous torrent of words exhausting. But on the second, Sorkin has made amends here; it’s Molly who is the fulcrum of the story and she commands centre stage.
The film draws to a satisfying close on a quieter, conciliatory note – none of which obscures the fact that it’s been a thrill ride, one that commands our attention throughout.