Molly’s Game review – Jessica Chastain is phenomenal in Aaron Sorkin's poker drama

Playing high-stakes poker hostess Molly Bloom, Chastain carries Sorkin’s screenplay-heavy directorial debut – and sizzles with Idris Elba

We all know Aaron Sorkin can write. The one-man zeitgeist behind The West Wing, The Social Network, Moneyball, The Newsroom and more, his confrontational style blends skill, smartness and, particularly, showiness in a way that leaves no question about his talent. But can he direct? Having now watched his directorial debut twice, I am still not entirely sure that he can.

Most certainly he can put together a slickly entertaining story: Molly’s Game, based on the autobiography of disgraced “poker princess” Molly Bloom, rattles along nicely. He can offer us a privileged vantage point from which to gaze into the closed world of the high-stakes poker games that Bloom runs. He can most certainly tell a story. But this is a story that is told primarily with words rather than pictures. This is film-making that is almost slavishly in service of the screenplay. It’s essentially a display cabinet for Sorkin’s dialogue. There is barely a shot or a cut that isn’t dictated by Molly’s silky narration. Cinema is, or should be, a visual medium. At times, it almost feels as though you could watch the film with your eyes closed and not miss out on much of its meaning.

But if Sorkin is perhaps a little too in thrall to his own writing, that doesn’t change the fact that the writing is first rate. At his best he seems like the natural heir to the crackling screwball sensibility that powered 1940s classics such as His Girl Friday and The Lady Eve. Not so much in terms of comedy – although the film bristles with wit, it is rarely laugh-out-loud funny. But the screwball influence is present in the breakneck pacing of the line delivery, the intellectual cut and parry, and the brilliant female protagonist who runs rings around most of the men in the film. Like Rosalind Russell’s reporter Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday, Molly is a fiercely ambitious woman who has carved her place, with biting charm and sharp fingernails, in a man’s world. Like Barbara Stanwyck’s card-sharp con artist Jean Harrington in The Lady Eve, she has found a way to profit from the weaknesses of others. In the central role, Jessica Chastain is, quite simply, phenomenal.

Molly’s Game: trailer

If the screenwriting takes the starring role in this film, that’s only because so much of it is delivered by Chastain. She can take a line which is so written that you can subliminally hear Sorkin’s fingers tapping on his keyboard, and deploy it with such confidence and authority that we don’t even think to question its credibility.

Molly Bloom is pretty much an archetypal Chastain role. She’s a human smart bomb who uses her intelligence as a weapon. High achieving doesn’t even come near the stellar ambitions that she harbours. Formerly a freestyle skier who hoped to compete at the Olympics, Bloom is driven to succeed. Her introduction to the world of high-stakes private poker games comes through her employer, a boorish bully of a Hollywood film producer who criticises her “ugly dress, ugly shoes”. She quickly realises that to make it in this world of spoilt super-rich boys and their ruinously expensive games, she needs to brand herself as the ultimate unattainable luxury item. With a face which is all hard angles, like the facets of a diamond, and hair with the shine of a jaguar’s pelt, Molly looks like money.

Sorkin’s main skill as a director is that he is able to negotiate the complex structure of the narrative and keep all the juggled story elements aloft. We see Molly’s life through flashbacks, both to her childhood (Kevin Costner makes a forceful impression as Molly’s overbearing father) and to her days running the most exclusive poker games in town, first in Los Angeles and later in New York. Meanwhile, exposition is deftly delivered through Molly’s meetings with her attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who is representing her in the court case which is the result of an FBI investigation.

And these are the moments in which the film fully ignites. Elba is as good as I have ever seen him. Jaffey has a peppery impatience, which makes him a perfect foil for Molly’s quicksilver intellect. Their sparking, firecracker scenes together are so deliciously bracing, you rather wish there were more of them. The thrill of watching two actors at the absolute top of their game is Sorkin’s winning card.

Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain in Molly’s Game.
‘Deliciously bracing’: Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain in Molly’s Game. Photograph: Michael Gibson/AP


Wendy Ide

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Molly's Game review – Jessica Chastain ups the ante in Aaron Sorkin poker drama
With his propulsive, savvy dialogue, Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut about a poker host who called rich men’s bluff has addictive and amoral snap

Peter Bradshaw

28, Dec, 2017 @3:30 PM

Article image
Molly's Game review – Aaron Sorkin's poker drama is a bet that fails to pay off
The Oscar-winning screenwriter makes his directorial debut with the long and rambling tale of ‘poker princess’ Molly Bloom, brought half-heartedly to life by a miscast Jessica Chastain

Benjamin Lee

09, Sep, 2017 @6:20 AM

Article image
Idris Elba joins Aaron Sorkin's table for poker biopic Molly's Game
Social Network writer Sorkin, who is making his directorial debut, says chemistry between Elba and Jessica Chastain will be ‘electric’

Ben Child

09, May, 2016 @10:30 AM

Article image
Miss Sloane review – Jessica Chastain chews up DC
The actor is on top form as a tough Washington lobbyist in this murky political thriller

Wendy Ide

14, May, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Good Nurse review – Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain excel in gripping medical drama
Understated performances are deployed to devastating effect in Danish director Tobias Lindholm’s English-language debut

Wendy Ide

16, Oct, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
The Forgiven review – brooding tale of crime and punishment starring Fiennes and Chastain
Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain play a couple en route to a weekend of debauchery in the desert in this morality tale from John Michael McDonagh

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

04, Sep, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
The 355 review – Jessica Chastain and her spy gang just don’t add up
The combined might of Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Diane Kruger and Penélope Cruz can’t enliven this lumbering action thriller

Simran Hans

08, Jan, 2022 @3:00 PM

Article image
The Zookeeper’s Wife review – sanitised wartime drama
Jessica Chastain stars as a Warsaw animal lover who saved hundreds of Jewish people from the Nazis

Simran Hans

23, Apr, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Trial of the Chicago 7 review – timely courtroom drama
Aaron Sorkin’s electrifying dramatisation of the trial of a group of 60s radicals illuminates issues that still trouble America

Wendy Ide

03, Oct, 2020 @2:00 PM

Article image
100 Streets review – lightweight
Idris Elba and Gemma Arterton can’t save this formulaic London drama with three storylines

Wendy Ide

13, Nov, 2016 @8:00 AM