THE QUEENS GAMBIT
(***½)-JIM RUTKOWSKI
"Clever but never conceited it possesses a reassurance borne of flawless construction..."

Sex, Drugs and....Chess?

(120620) 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
Logan 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
Fury Road sequel. Here 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 screen.

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.
 

Directed by:    Scott Frank
Written by:    Scott Frank, Allan Scott, Walter Tevis
Starring:    Anya Taylor-Joy, Chloe Pirrie, Bill Camp
Released:    102320 on Netflix in seven parts
Length:    393 minutes
Rating:    Rated TV-MA

THE QUEENS GAMBIT © 2020  Flitcraft
Review © 2020 Alternate Reality, Inc.