It has been a long time since I have got my adrenaline running high watching a chess game. The Queen’s Gambit is the story of an orphan girl who tries to live her life with certainty as she plays chess, while battling parental abandonment, addiction issues, and casual sexism in the 1960s. It is a Netflix miniseries created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott adapted from the book The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis.
Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) is an orphan child chess-prodigy who realizes her potential by learning and playing chess with the janitor Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) at her orphanage. She lost her mother in a car crash, which haunts her into adulthood and fuels the aggression in her chess games. Her worldview is driven by the fact that she wants to have control over the 64 squares and if she fails, she has only herself to blame. She is a lone ranger fighting her battles on the chessboard. She gets addicted to tranquilizer pills which were fed to her at the orphanage before the state government bans them. The pills help her to visualize her games in her head by looking at the unreal chess pieces moving in all permutations on a chessboard projected on the ceiling.
The teleplay and direction by Scott Frank are so well done that the story and the camera move in unison fueled by the amazing background score by Carlos Rafael Rivera. There is a moment in the first episode where the young Beth is entering the orphanage and the camera is also moving towards her from the other side at an equal pace. The same thing repeats in the last episode where adult Beth is coming visit the orphanage again. The viewer will trip with her addiction and walk with the redemption as the camera helps to do so. The production design and the pastel color palette captures the true feeling of the ’60s pertaining to the US and USSR more subtly and realistically than the cold war rift popularized by Hollywood. The background score carries Beth’s mood through the phases of her life and amplifies tension in the chess games.
Beth’s story in itself is that of an underdog proving her excellence to the people who undermined her. Her addiction is shown in a very natural way which does not take place all the time but pulls her down to the hole when it hits. There is a moment when Beth has a wild night before a very important game and the next day, her subtle breakdown is visible through the game where she convinces herself to think that everything is all right, but her body says otherwise. She cries on losing but doesn’t go on an alcohol spree just after that. The drinking starts after a while when her organized loneliness fails to give her the mental comfort she is after. Beth is an introvert and not a big fan of the girl stuff. Her relationship with boys is more like accepting their advances if she wants to welcome them but not in search of some lost love in multiple partners. She does have a romantic interest, but things don’t go the way one would like them to. Overall it is Beth who overcomes all the challenges thrown at her by her uncompromising attitude.
The accuracy of the chess games is impeccable. Former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov and chess coach Bruce Pandolfini were consultants on this show. The chess pieces come to life when Beth thinks about them. The moves all went over my head, barring a few that are slow enough to follow, but the aggression and the planning with each move hit hard. Anya Taylor-Joy is at her best; her performance as Beth from ages 15 to 24, with all the intimate emotional moments and warrior instincts of the snatching game, was on point. The subtle nuances, like whom to call when you have to do a funeral yourself, the brief glance of defiance at an alcohol bottle walking down the hallway, the attention to detail about recreating the ’60s hotel rooms and many more, steal the show. The ensemble cast captures the life of chess players and the people close to them. You should totally watch this if you don’t know about chess, and all the more if you know chess, as you will be in for a good time.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.