This stylish series is “the most fun you can have watching chess”
It gives me enormous pleasure to inform you that The Queen’s Gambit is quite possibly the best thing to happen this year. I say “possibly” because it’s been a frightfully long year and it’s hard to believe it also contained Tiger King, which feels like a lifetime ago. There may have been some equally excellent shows or movies in 2020 but for the life of me, I cannot name a single one at this moment as all pales in comparison.
Based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Walter Tevis, the seven-episode miniseries is about a young girl, Beth Harmon, who is a chess prodigy in the Cold War era of the 1960s. She’s also got a bit of a pill and alcohol abuse situation going on.
Those really are just the bare bones of the story. You don’t need to have read the book, and you don’t even need to know how to play chess (I have neither advantage) to enjoy this beautifully crafted drama. “Netflix’s Marvelous The Queen’s Gambit Is the Kind of Prestige Drama TV Doesn’t Make Anymore,” is the headline on Time’s review.
Simply everything is exquisite: the cast and their performances, the costumes and make-up that reflect Beth’s mood and emotional state in every scene, the music, the cinematography, the special effects … I can fault almost nothing other than the final episode, titled The End Game, which was perhaps a little heavy on the sentimentality and heartstrings, but it could also have been my mood and how sad I was that it was over (even though I thought there were six episodes so when the seventh rolled it was a happy bonus).
Episode 1 opens with Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who is mesmerising) in a rather bad state, apparently the morning after a night of hedonism. It’s a brief flash forward before we learn of her childhood, when her mother is killed in a car crash. With an absent father, Beth is an orphan and dispatched to Methuen Home in Kentucky where the girls are dosed daily with “vitamins”. The green ones are in fact tranquillisers, and an older girl, Jolene (Moses Ingram), suggests young Beth take them at night.
If they were meant to help her sleep, they had the opposite effect, especially after she encounters the janitor Mr Shaibel (Bill Camp) in the basement, playing chess by himself. “Show me,” she demands, a serious nine-year-old who never smiles. It doesn’t take long before Mr Shaibel realises Beth has a brilliant mind for the game.
“The series uses chess as its engine for a more complicated narrative about female genius, the allure of addiction and the gift of autonomy.” – Variety
A few years pass, Beth and Jolene become close friends, two lost souls who are never adopted, until one day, Allston and Alma Wheatley arrive to whisk Beth off to a new life, leaving Jolene behind. The one constant is chess, and Beth pursues her passion, her calling, by beginning to enter competitions. She’s virtually unbeatable and it proves to be a rather lucrative career. Who knew?
Along the way, there are the players – all men – whom she must best as well as earn their respect, and the encounters spill over from the chess board to the bedroom. The ultimate goal is to play the Russians, Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski) in particular, a grand master who began playing when he was a toddler. The nerdiness and competitiveness and egos and backstabbing in the world of chess is quite remarkable; opening the door to this secret universe is a refreshing breath of icy cold air that leaves you gasping.
There are so many layers to this limited series, as you root for Beth to win, not only at the game but at life. Her self-destructive behaviour is not without consequences, and on the one hand you want to yell “go, girl!” and on the other, you’re urging her to please, please stop. Don’t have that drink. Don’t take that pill.
Director Scott Frank earned two Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay nominations for Out of Sight (1998) and Logan (2017), and he created Godless – another sterling series on Netflix. Allan Scott (Don’t Look Now, The Witches) is a co-creator and executive producer alongside Frank.
The cast includes Jacob Fortune-Lloyd (Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker, Wolf Hall) as Townes, Chloe Pirrie (War & Peace, Black Mirror) as Alice Harmon, Christiane Seidel (Godless, Boardwalk Empire) as Mrs Deardorff, Matthew Dennis Lewis (Godless) as Matt and Russell Dennis Lewis (Godless) as Mike.
Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Game of Thrones) plays Benny Watts, and Harry Melling (Harry Potter) plays Harry Beltik, both of whom face Beth across the board. Isla Johnston as young Beth most certainly deserves a special mention for her poised performance, and composure far beyond her years.
If you still require convincing, Entertainment Weekly says “The Queen’s Gambit plays familiar moves with style and star power … Anya Taylor-Joy is stunning as a self-destructive chess prodigy in Netflix’s solidly entertaining miniseries.”
From Variety: “The Queen’s Gambit manages to personalize the game and its players thanks to clever storytelling and, in Anya Taylor-Joy, a lead actor so magnetic that when she stares down the camera lens, her flinty glare threatens to cut right through it. Most crucially, the series uses chess as its engine for a more complicated narrative about female genius, the allure of addiction and the gift of autonomy.”
The Queen’s Gambit makes chess exciting again, says Film School Rejects. “The Netflix miniseries is fashionable, cerebral, and possibly the most fun you can have watching chess.”
I’d happily re-watch it right now.