Did you know that a chess game can run so long that it gets adjourned? The
player whose turn it is records their next move in a sealed envelope so that
when both opponents next sit down, refreshed, they can proceed as if play has
been unbroken. That is just one of the intricacies of chess revealed to the
layman viewer in Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, starring Anya Taylor-Joy as
fictional chess prodigy Beth Harmon. Adapted from Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel, the
miniseries—whose seven episodes are named for phases or moves of a chess
game—itself resembles this form of match: Drawn-out in parts, but worth the
necessary breaks, building to a complete and powerful experience by the end.
On paper this story of a chess playing prodigy in Sixties America might not
sound like the stuff of drama. A tired and oft repeated rags to riches tale
which screams period piece, promises protracted stretches of ponderous cliché
and will have audiences switching off after ten minutes. However if you mention
that Scott Frank, writer of
and Minority Report is on board things change. After all this is the man who
reinvented Wolverine, gifted Liam Neeson with A Walk Amongst the Tombstones and
made George Clooney cool in Out Of Sight.
With The Queen’s Gambit we have a rites of passage story carried compellingly by
Anya-Taylor Joy, who was recently cast as Furiosa in the
she plays orphan Beth Harmon who finds solace and salvation in the mathematical
certainties of chess. Isla Johnson portrays Beth early on demonstrating a
maturity and focus which belie her tender years. However, it is also here that
she encounters her most powerful parental figure in Bill Camp’s janitor.
They bond over the chessboard and his firm but fair teachings shape Beth’s
self-sufficient approach to life from then on. Through his direction Scott Frank
imbues the learning process with an understated beauty. Touchstones in her
adolescent life are graced with a harmonious tranquility, as the game becomes
her constant companion. Once Anya Taylor-Joy takes full control of the role, her
poise and intellectual detachment makes her more than a match for anyone on
Only Marielle Heller’s Alma Wheatley is able to level the playing field
performance wise, first adopting then encouraging Beth, before becoming a
genuine parental figure. Their dynamic and another forged with Thomas Brodie
Sangster’s Benny, makes The Queen’s Gambit a pleasure to watch. Composer Carlos
Rivera has succeeded in creating a compelling score individually tailored to
imbue atmosphere and underpin dramatic moments.
This turns chess from a stuffy and stale game of strategy into something with
broader metaphorical meanings. This gift provides Beth with perspective, control
and a defense mechanism few people are ever likely to penetrate. Writers Allan
Scott, Scott Frank and William Trevis address the issues of isolated gender
roles, childhood addiction and alcoholism with subtlety and respect. There is a
real sense of tension given off by these intellectual clashes and structurally
it feels flawless.
Moments of pathos and comedy intertwine seamlessly in between these veiled
gender battles which only increase in intensity. The Queen’s Gambit carefully
explores how someone with extreme talent can exist in a world which operates on
a different wave length. Those with exceptional gifts simply view things
differently, are mocked for those differences and often intentionally isolate
themselves in a world they can control.
Chess is the perfect allegory for that sense of detachment and intellectual
isolationism. Scott Frank and company have created something of substance which
celebrates the exceptional, yet is savvy enough to demonstrate that such talents
carry burdens of their own. The Queen’s Gambit is a drama peppered with elegance
both in terms of cinematography, music and performance. Clever but never
conceited it possesses a reassurance borne of flawless construction, which may
result in the purchase of a chess board come the conclusion.
Just as it demystifies the structure of a chess match, The Queen’s Gambit also
takes great care in dramatizing, in incredibly engaging fashion, the game play
itself. The casual viewer won’t necessarily be able to follow every
lightning-fast move, but the flow and the narrative of every game is clear. The
cinematography is superb, especially the recurring visual motif of Beth
manifesting a chess board out of shadows on her bedroom ceiling, the ghostly
pieces blinking in and out of reality as she trains herself to anticipate moves.
It’s a rare series that can accurately render a particular form of genius
without alienating the viewers who will always be the spectators. Beth’s
struggles with addiction, and with the systems into which she was cosmically
placed as some sort of powerless pawn, ground her brilliance without punishing
her for it. Her's is a messy, poignant underdog story with the important takeaway
that even if one becomes the queen, there’s no use in standing alone on an empty
board; you’re nothing without the rest of the set.