From Molly's Game to Jackie, the best TV films to watch this week
Film of the week
Molly’s Game, BBC Two, 10pm
Although better known as a writer – he scripted The West Wing and won an Oscar for his screenplay for 2010’s The Social Network – Aaron Sorkin announced himself as a director of note when his 2020 film The Trial Of The Chicago 7 earned six Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture. Not bad for what was only his second effort behind the camera. His third, Being The Ricardos, is up for three Oscars at tomorrow night’s ceremony.
Molly’s Game, a 2017 adaptation of a memoir by Molly Bloom about her time running high-stakes poker games in Los Angeles and New York, is Sorkin’s first film as director. As with The Trial Of The Chicago 7 and Being The Ricardos he also wrote the screenplay, and it’s every bit as engaging and accomplished as those other two works.
Jessica Chastain is Molly. In the quirky narrated flashback sequence which opens the film we learn that she was once an Olympic level skier who overcame a serious childhood injury only to blow her chance of competing for the US at the Winter Olympics. Taking a year out before Harvard Law School she heads for LA, “to be young in warm weather”. She winds up working for a scrupulously rude businessman Dean Keith (Succession’s Jeremy Strong) and is soon organising the weekly, after-hours poker night he runs in the basement of an LA night-club. Here it’s called the Cobra Lounge, though the real venue was the infamous Viper Lounge, co-owned by Johnny Depp. Among the regulars are a young Hollywood star whose identity has never been revealed and who here is referred to only as Player X (Michael Cera).
Molly and Dean tread a fine line between the legal and the illegal, so when he effectively fires her she sets up her own game, ensures it is entirely legitimate, and starts to become very rich. Double-crossed by Player X, she moves to New York but soon comes to the attention of the Mob, who want a cut of her earnings. Meanwhile the high spending Russians she has hooked turn out to be of serious interest to the FBI – which is how Molly finds herself being charged with racketeering and facing jail time. Enter lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to plead her case.
As he did with The West Wing, The Social Network, Steve Jobs (his biopic of the Apple co-founder) and Moneyball (based on Michael Lewis’s best-seller about baseball), Sorkin takes a potentially chewy subject – in this case poker, with its betting intricacies and arcane terminology – and makes it understandable without ever over-simplifying it. In other words both novices and afficionados will take something away, while the insight into the world of America’s celebrity and criminal elites is all the more shocking for its being based in fact.
And the best of the rest …
Alien: Covenant, Channel 4, 10pm
Set approximately 10 years after the 2012 prequel Prometheus, Alien: Covenant joins the dots to the original trilogy with strong echoes of Sigourney Weaver’s exploits as Ripley, somewhat meekly mimicked here by Katherine Waterston (pictured below). The Weyland-Yutani Corporation vessel Covenant is bound for a remote planet with 15 crew and 2,000 colonists in cryogenic stasis. Synthetic android Walter (a scene-stealing Michael Fassbender, who takes a dual role) keeps watch until a neutrino burst from a star causes a "destructive event" that prematurely wakes the crew. They stumble upon a distress signal broadcast from a nearby planet that sensors reveal would make an idyllic new home, and set out to investigate. But they are not alone on this new world.
Jackie, Channel 4, 12.20am
Journalist Theodore H White (Billy Crudup) visits Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, a few days after the assassination of John F Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson) to interview his grieving widow, Jackie (Natalie Portman, pictured below). Gradually, Jackie relates her version of events, including the blood-spattered rush to hospital where she is joined by her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) and social secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig). Jackie is an unconventional biopic of the former first lady as she struggles to come to terms with sudden loss while publicly remaining strong for her children and the American people. Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s film is a mesmerising kaleidoscope of real and imagined details, galvanised by Portman’s haunting embodiment of a widow in emotional isolation.
Mamma Mia!, ITV, 4pm
Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is poised to marry her hunky fiance Sky (Dominic Cooper) on an idyllic Greek island, but the blushing bride-to-be has no-one to give her away because her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) has never revealed her father’s identity. So, Sophie snoops through Donna’s belongings and learns that her pater is one of three men: divorced architect Sam (Pierce Brosnan), intrepid travel writer Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) or steadfast banker Harry (Colin Firth). Sophie secretly invites all three to the wedding without telling her mother, in the hope that one of them will be able to walk her down the aisle. The plot takes a backseat to the Abba songs in this crowd-pleasing musical, and the cast performs them with infectious gusto.
La La Land, BBC One, 11.05pm
Aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) works as a barista between auditions, which repeatedly end in crushing rejection. On a traffic-jammed Los Angeles freeway, she crosses paths with talented pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who reveres jazz in its purest form. They meet again at a party in the Hollywood hills, where they share hopes for the future beneath the twinkling stars of the Californian night sky. But can they follow their dreams and keep their artistic integrity without sacrificing their relationship? It may have famously missed out on the Best Picture Oscar, but La La Land is a visually sumptuous, unabashedly swooning valentine to the golden age of Hollywood musicals. Gosling and Stone are individually luminous - and electrifying as a double-act in high energy song and dance sequences.
Spotlight, BBC Two, 11.40pm
Down in the basement of the Boston Globe newsroom, Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton) presides over the Spotlight investigative team – Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy), who invest thousands of man hours following leads. Their work is valuable, but costly, and incoming editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) makes it clear he is willing to make difficult cuts. However, the team is mired in a potentially explosive story. An attorney claims to have documents that prove a cardinal knew about child abuse within the diocese and did nothing. As the reporters dig deeper, they find the situation is worse than they could have imagined. This fact-based, Oscar-winning drama features strong performances across the board as the horrific stories of shattered innocence come to light.
A Monster Calls, BBC Two, 11.15pm
Adapted by Patrick Ness from his award-winning novel, this fantasy drama will strike a chord with anyone who has lost a loved one to terminal illness. Reclusive schoolboy Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is in denial about the dark shadow hanging over his mother Lizzie (Felicity Jones) and seeks refuge in his vivid illustrations. As darkness falls, the yew tree that stands guard over the nearby church magically comes to life and morphs into a gnarled creature (voiced by Liam Neeson). The behemoth visits Conor and promises to share three parables. The creature demands just one thing in return: "Tell me your nightmare." MacDougall is mesmerising as Conor, demonstrating a maturity beyond his years, while Jones and Sigourney Weaver offer sterling support.
Brassed Off, Film 4, 11.20pm
Pete Postlethwaite gives one of his most powerful performances as Danny, the ailing leader of a South Yorkshire colliery brass band who is determined to see his members compete in a prestigious music competition. He’s so obsessed, he fails to see why most of his musicians – including his cash-strapped son Phil (Stephen Tompkinson on top form) – are more concerned with the news that the pit is closing. But at least new recruit Gloria (Tara Fitzgerald) provides a distraction for tenor horn player Andy (Ewan McGregor). Although it has plenty of funny moments, there’s also real anger and drama in Brassed Off, as well as some stirring music.
The Man Who Would Be King, Film 4, 3.10pm
John Huston’s lavish 1975 period adventure, based on the Rudyard Kipling story, chronicles the dubious dealings of two former British soldiers (Sean Connery and Michael Caine) in 19th-century India. They travel to an unexplored land where one of them fools the natives into believing he is a god. However, his growing delusions of grandeur put him at loggerheads with his conscience-stricken comrade-in-arms, leading them down a path that can only end in tragedy. This cautionary tale is as gripping now as it was on its release, and the on-screen pairing of cinema legends Connery and Caine is truly sublime.
The Miseducation Of Cameron Post, BBC Three, 9pm
Based on a novel by Emily M Danforth, The Miseducation Of Cameron Post chronicles the damage wrought by a gay conversion therapy camp through the eyes of one girl, who wages a war of attrition against counsellors and discovers her greatest weapons are her compassion and wit. Teenager Cameron Post (Chloe Grace Moretz, pictured below right) is discovered in a passionate embrace with female friend Coley (Quinn Shephard), which forces Cameron’s deeply religious guardian, her aunt Ruth (Kerry Butler), to pursue a radical course of action. Ruth sends Cameron away to a gay conversion centre, overseen by fearsome therapist Dr Lydia March (Jennifer Ehle). Anchored by a quietly compelling performance from Moretz, The Miseducation Of Cameron Post tethers sympathy securely to the teenage protagonists.