A compelling story, exquisite period detail, and a wonderful lead performance make this Netflix series a deeply engaging show anyone can get into. It also might inspire you to add chess set to your Christmas list this year.
The Queen’s Gambit is a miniseries released this year on Netflix. It is based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Walter Trevis. The story follows an orphaned chess prodigy as she rises from a novice in an orphanage basement to the world stage and a showdown with the top ranked Soviet player at the Moscow Invitational in the late 1960’s. The story is given room to breathe by expanding its narrative over the course of seven episodes.
The series has wonderful attention to detail. It begins in the mid 1950’s as Beth Harmon, is admitted to an orphanage after her mother is killed in a car accident. The series takes place throughout the 50’s and 60’s and is filled with a wonderfully authentic aesthetic. From the carpeting to the costumes, every frame is filled with period accurate features. They don’t adhere to the generic cliches of the 50’s and 60’s. The look and feel is very specific to the characters in the story. The orphanage feels lived in and much older than the period with minor updates the characters would make. Beth is eventually adopted by a very middle class family trying to look like an upper class family, and the costumes and decor of the house represent that. Beth’s wardrobe reflects not only the period, but her personal taste. She doesn’t just go for the outlandish cliche dresses of the period, but sticks close to a personal style that feels right for her. It’s really fun to inhabit this world with these characters.
Speaking of the characters, they are a fascinating bunch of odd balls. Beth herself is a bit prickly, but she’s not a belligerent troubled genius like we’ve seen a million times. She has some rough edges. She is single minded in her goals. She isn’t always the most likable protagonist, but she is always fascinating to watch. She’s played beautifully by Anya Taylor-Joy who feels effortless throughout the film simply embodying the character rather than playing a part. Bill Camp plays Mr. Shaibel the janitor who first teaches her chess. Their early scenes are fascinating to watch. He is a stoic and gruff man who comes to admire her genius with the game. He changes, but he avoids the trope of the gruff mentor who melts into a cuddly bear by the charms of his protege. Beth is adopted by Alma, played by Marielle Heller. She is a woman who is in over her head, but she and Beth help each other through life. She has both a positive and negative impact on Beth, and that dichotomy is wonderfully explored. Finally, Moses Ingram plays Jolene who maybe Beth’s truest friend. She begins as a foul mouthed girl at the orphanage and grows into an independent woman in her own right. From start to finish, she’s fantastic.
I have struggled not to refer to this series as a film, because it feels all of a piece. It is a cohesive story that feels more like a film than a tv show. Each episode was written and directed by one individual, Scott Frank. This unity of vision has done so much for the show. It just feels like a complete narrative beginning to end. There are no extra episodes or fillers. It’s a solid story from start to finish. He also does a brilliant job of making the advanced chess these characters are playing if not entirely understandable for a novice at least compelling to watch. This really is a sports movie except about chess. This isn’t your grandma’s chess. This is sexy chess with gorgeous, glamorous people playing at the highest level. It is fun to watch and deeply engaging.
I have a few problems with the show. At the orphanage, Beth and the other girls present are given tranquilizers. This was apparently common practice. Beth develops an addiction to the pills and to alcohol. Her addictions are given ample screen time, but her recovery and battle with addiction isn’t. One episode she is simply clean. She relapses, but it doesn’t take a huge toll on her. She just stops taking them again. It’s an odd way to depict her addiction. It’s more of a side note in her journey rather than an obstacle to overcome.
The narrative is also curiously paced. It charts her rise to great heights in the chess world, but that’s about it. It’s just a series of heights. She leaps from one success to another. Even when she fails or loses a big match, she isn’t truly defeated. The narrative is more about her inner drive and her insatiable determination to have some control over her life which explains why these external forces don’t impact the narrative arc as much as it would or should. However it makes for an odd feel to the narrative as she just continues climbing like a roller coster that never really gives us that first drop.
My last gripe is with the character of Benny Watts played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster. I don’t like him. He’s supposed to be like the bad boy of chess with his leather jacket and knife on his belt, but he just sucks. I don’t like him. He serves a purpose narratively. The actor does a good job of playing him. I just personally found him annoying and insufferable. Your mileage with this character may vary. He just got on my nerves.
Overall, I really enjoyed this series. I would go so far as to say I loved it. I would definitely watch it again. It has inspired me to break out my chess set. Definitely give it a watch this holiday season. A-