Netflix may have fallen flat with their last few romantic comedies, however, their recent drama release, “The Queen’s Gambit” reminds viewers of the streaming service’s production and entertainment quality all while launching yet another topic into the mainstream: chess. Despite the show’s short run, Anya Taylor-Joy and the straightforward — yet gripping — plot completely capture one’s attention about a game not normally known to induce the intrigue seen in this Cold War-era limited series. From Taylor-Joy’s masterful performance as chess prodigy, Beth Harmon, to the show’s depiction of addiction to the competitive thrill of sports drama, “The Queen’s Gambit” plays all the right moves (sorry, I’ll stop with the chess puns now).
I love learning when films or TV series are based on a book or short story, because then I’ll get the chance to re-experience the story. Luckily, “The Queen’s Gambit” source material, the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, is apparently just as widely acclaimed as the 2020 adaptation. Once you realize it’s a scant 243 pages, the seven-episode run makes sense. Creators Scott Frank (who also serves as the director) and Allan Scott, utilize the running time of each episode — which varies, but hovers around the hour mark — to give full attention to all aspects of the show. They bring Beth’s Bildungsroman-esque journey to life, following her from her orphaning at nine-years-old to being adopted at 15-years-old to navigating the world stage of chess at 22-years-old.
But Frank, Scott and the production team’s work would not be as successful without leading lady Taylor-Joy’s haunting portrayal of our heroine as she grapples with trauma, tragedy, triumphs and tranquilizers. Young Isla Johnston also does a magnificent job of setting the stage for Beth’s illusive, yet magnetic, disposition in the first episode as viewers learn of how she develops not only a penchant for chess, but also an addiction to the tranquilizer drugs given to the children at the orphanage. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul, and Taylor-Joy demonstrates that idiom to a tee as she conveys Beth’s quiet and intense character. As the camera focuses on her face when she victoriously battles out chess match after chess match, the viewer is privy to Beth’s inner analysis of the game and emotional responses. One can see her pride when toppling unexpecting opponents — which is almost as addictive to her as the tranquilizers — and her anger when she cannot think her way out of a situation. Beth isn’t much for words, but when she imparts dialogue, it’s as sharp and clever as her attack-forward strategy on the chessboard. It’s a bit of a turn-around from Taylor-Joy’s charming portrayal of the meddling titular character of last year’s “Emma,” but refreshing to see her versatility.
I would be remiss to not commend the talented actors of the complex cast of characters supporting and shaping Beth throughout her journey to chess champion. You might see a few familiar faces in rivals Harry Beltik (Harry Melling, aka Dudley Dursley) and Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), who bring out different dynamics at different points in Beth’s lives. Marielle Heller is impressive as Beth’s adoptive mother, who suffers from alcoholism and housewife syndrome. Every character, no matter how minor, seems to have a realistic background and personality, thanks to the writers and actors. Jolene and Mr. Shaibel continue to have resounding influences on Beth’s character throughout the show, despite mostly only appearing in the first episode.
Oh, and the game itself — fortunately, you don’t need to know much, if anything, about chess prior to watching the series. If anything, your appreciation for the strategy and will increase as you root for Beth and her rise through the ranks. “The Queen’s Gambit” doesn’t talk down to viewers but also doesn’t sacrifice the accuracy and drama of the game. In fact, the show’s portrayal of chess has been pretty well received by the community
Besides handling the themes of addiction and trauma fairly well, “The Queen’s Gambit” incorporates the topic of feminism in a subtle but impactful manner. The show is not as overtly empowering as other media intends to be and delivers the messages of female agency in a more matter-of-fact way. This can be seen in how Beth gains respect in the male-dominated chess circuit and how the other female characters navigate mid-20th century America.
And as a final point of admiration for “The Queen’s Gambit” immersive world, I have to draw attention to the series’ cohesive and eye-catching aesthetic. Despite taking place in the sometimes-drab fashion era of the 1950s and 60s, the chic — and historically accurate — wardrobe of each of the characters complement their layered performances. I enjoyed looking to see what Beth would wear in the next scene, with her perfectly styled hair and elegant makeup. Heller’s character wouldn’t be as distinct without her polished outfits, nor would Brodie-Sangster be as believable as the cowboy-pirate champion without his rugged get-up. The impeccable set design is just as impressive.
“The Queen’s Gambit” isn’t perfect, such as with the trope that Jolene is settled in; however, in the short amount of time we get to spend with Beth, you feel as connected to her story and life as if we were treated to a full series. And you know a series is successful when you’re left wanting more, but at the same time, are completely content with the ending you’re left with.
Rating: 5/5 stars