The Queen's Gambit

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Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen's Gambit.
Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen's Gambit.
Photo: Phil Bray/Netflix


The Queen's Gambit




5/5 Stars


The Queen's Gambit is the story of an orphaned chess prodigy from ages eight to twenty-two and her journey to become a grandmaster of chess while fighting her own demons of addiction.


Chess is a cerebral game. It mainly involves opponents staring at the board, making notes and making calculated moves – and all the reasoning comes from deductions they have made in their mind. It's easy to see why many viewers might be put off by a seven-part series about chess. I mean, chess isn't the most exciting sport to watch live, let alone on TV. But The Queen's Gambit subverts everything you think you know about the game and takes you on a thrilling ride.

More like a seven-part movie than a series, every episode is written and directed by Scott Frank (Godless), and it feels as if it exists as one unit. The first episode begins with the story of Beth Harmon, a girl who was orphaned after her mother died in a horrific accident. She is sent to live at an orphanage, where she meets the custodian Mr Shaibel. Mr Shaibel teaches Beth how to play chess and soon realises she has a knack for the game. Also at the orphanage, Beth is introduced to tranquillisers as the orphans are fed the medication to keep them obedient. She gets addicted to the pills and starts to form a link between the medication and her talent at chess.

This is ultimately a coming-of-age story and as Beth grows, gets adopted, enters high school and deals with average young people things, like crushes and bullies, her obsession with chess and her addiction to pills (and eventually alcohol) gets worse. It's the story of geniuses and their demons, of talent vs addiction. And it does it so well; we understand the character of Beth, we sympathise with her and we root for her.

A lot of this can be attributed to Anya Taylor-Joy's performance as Beth. The writing is good, but Taylor-Joy takes what is on the page and brings it to life delicately and deliberately. As we see Beth shift from the awkwardness of her teenage years to becoming more self-assured and glamorous, Taylor-Joy embraces every part of this journey and is believable in her portrayal. Even when Beth is spiralling or particularly aggressive in how she's playing chess, Taylor-Joy never plays the role as overly dramatic. It always seems natural and slightly modest, as if she is making a move in a chess match. Taylor-Joy has been mesmerising in every performance she has chosen up to now, and whenever I've seen her in a film I've always felt like it wasn't enough. I'm glad to see this translates into series as well. We feel transfixed from beginning to end.

The supporting characters, however, pale in comparison to Taylor-Joy's Beth. Only one stands out and that is Marielle Heller as Alma, Beth's adopted mother. Heller has been known lately as a director of films such as A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Can You Forgive Me? but she goes back to her acting roots for The Queen's Gambit. Alma is a grieving woman, a housewife without a husband, a talented pianist who struggles with stage fright, and she becomes Beth's companion in her quest to become a chess grandmaster.

The other characters sort of flit in and out of her life. We almost forget about them until they appear at her front door (sometimes, literally). The only character we are constantly reminded of is Borgov, the Russian champion who is the opponent Beth desperately wants to beat. And maybe, this is intentional, Beth's only obsession is beating Borgov, and he is the only person who is really on her mind, so he is the only person we think of. However, I do think it would have been interesting to learn more about the supporting characters and their backstories, perhaps in a way to understand their motivations for helping Beth.

In many ways, the true supporting character in the series is the game of chess. It is treated more like a religion than a sport. The players are compelled to play it, they speak in their own language, it is more than a career, more than a culture, much more than a hobby. The series is based on the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis. Tevis said that it was originally inspired by his own journey as a chess player. Even for non-chess players like myself, it is compelling to watch. I was apprehensive at first, but the way in which the show is shot makes chess look almost enticing, almost sexy, but still kind of intimidating. Will I go buy a board? Probably not. Will I be interested in watching other people play? Most definitely.

Scott Frank really did an excellent job with the writing and directing. Some episodes felt like it could have been streamlined a bit more, but not enough that it made the show boring. I was glued to the screen from beginning to end, enthralled by the world he created. And the direction itself was almost rhythmic to watch: the ticking of the chess clocks, Beth moving like she's dancing, the delicate movements of the pieces on the chessboard. The technical achievements of the series are worth mentioning – the beautifully lit cinematography, the special effects that show Beth playing chess in her mind under the influence of narcotics, the score that permeates every scene. It is a very well-crafted piece of work. I have to mention the costumes as designed by Gabriele Binder. The show is set in the 1950s and 1960s, and she did such an amazing job in recreating the glamour of the time while still making it seem realistic to the character.

In the end, it works in the show's favour that it is a limited series. The storyline does not have to be rushed like a film, and because it does not have to be set up for future seasons, they can tell a concise and focused story in seven episodes. Despite some issues I had with the writing, the series is so well put together and entrancing, that it is a must-watch.


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