Director: Scott Frank
Writers: Scott Frank, Scott Allan, Allan Scott, Walter Tevis
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Chloe Pirrie, Bill Camp, Marielle Heller, Harry Melling, Thomas Brodie-Sangster
Cinematographer: Steven Meizler
Editor: Michelle Tesoro
Streaming on: Netflix
The Queen’s Gambit has one of the most significant soundtracks in recent memory. Composer Carlos Rafael Rivera’s music is tender and melancholic for the most part. The piano and strings nurse Beth Harmon, a fictional chess prodigy who strives to be the world’s best player in the 1960s. Most background scores reveal the rhythm of the scene or the mood of the characters. But this score reacts to Beth like a companion, as if she were a dazzling silent film in need of a voice. Or a religion in need of context. It’s almost…protective of her. But towards the end of the seven-part miniseries, the score morphs into a “main theme”. This theme triggers the end-credit montage. It’s rousing and playful at once – think the title theme of Catch Me If You Can but sharper – which implies that the superpower is psychological rather than physical. It’s the melody of outwitting, outsmarting, outmanouvering. That’s when it becomes clear: this is the sound of a Superhero origin story.
The treatment of the series – the striking cinematography, the pastel period palettes, Beth’s awkward alien-like gait, the PG-13 aesthetics of darkness – reveals a roots tale. Beth Harmon is mythical, and not just because she’s based on an imaginary character of a novel. She is an American in a playground of Soviets. She is intuitive; her gift comes not from a mutant spiderbite but from green tranquilizer tablets. She can see a world (on the chessboard) that others don’t. She’s a bit of a sociopath – emotions refuse to register on her wide-eyed face, feelings refuse to humanize her. Instead of playing with dolls like other girls her age, little Beth spends her evenings playing chess with an old janitor (Bill Camp) in the basement. Like most tortured superheroes, she is also an orphan (who is adopted by a dysfunctional suburban couple). The person closest to her is a parent-figure, not a parent. Most importantly, Beth is a young woman in a male-dominated sport. Her gender is her cape. Her past is her kryptonite.
The placidly moving presence of 24-year-old actress Anya Taylor-Joy isn’t incidental. This is not the first time she has starred as a superhero metaphor. In M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable trilogy, Taylor-Joy emerged as Casey Cooke, a teenage girl whose childhood abuse drives a narrative that frames mental illness and trauma as hidden superpowers. The tagline of Split and Glass – “the broken are the more evolved” – also applies to Beth Harmon, and her internal struggle to embrace a higher destiny. Every night in bed, only her muddled mind – high on tranquilizer pills – can project ghostly chess pieces and phantom formations onto the ceiling. The question, of course, is why a chess film seems to be shot in the language of a superhero story. Is it just a visual gimmick? Is it because mental athletes deserve the cinematic limelight more than their celebrated physical counterparts?
The answer defines the allure of The Queen’s Gambit. A recent Livemint article, titled “Why women lose at chess,” examined the factors behind female players being traditionally inferior to men despite chess being a mental sport. The numbers are startling: Only 37 of more than 1700 grandmasters worldwide are women. The women’s World no. 1 is ranked 86th overall. Between societal pressure, systemic sexism, lack of financial support and raising families, it’s clear that sociocultural conditioning plays a big role in upholding chess as a man’s arena. Much of it comes down to the fact that young men – who grow up in households with mothers and sisters – can afford to devote their mind and passions elsewhere. Young women, often burdened with domestic responsibilities and smaller stresses, can rarely afford the luxury of mental space; there’s too much at stake. At one point later in the series, the Russian World no. 1 remarks to his scoffing colleagues that Beth is no regular “girl” – she plays fearlessly, aggressively, befitting of an orphan with nothing (left) to lose. She owes nothing to anyone. She owns nothing to destroy. This nullifies her gender. All Beth has is winning, and that makes her dangerous.
Beth Harmon aspires to soar because she is made to feel like a man. She can concentrate on the long-term picture rather than be concerned with short-term, immediate worries
As a result, the quintessential superhero template – featuring ordinary people hardened by extraordinary circumstances and freed from societal shackles – is a natural fit in a 1960s feminism narrative. The challenges are similar. Her talent, too, is a consequence of loss. A female world champion is so improbable, so fanciful, that her arc is forced to inherit superhuman tropes. As if to say: this is how much it takes. Beth’s mind finds the space for chess once she is adopted by a woman, Mrs. Wheatley (a wonderful Marielle Heller), who is so tired of being a desperate housewife that she inadvertently liberates Beth from the obligations of being a teenage girl. The lady is disenchanted with her marriage, with her distant husband, and hence finds solace in – and manages, and supports – Beth’s conquering of male egos. In short, Beth Harmon aspires to soar because she is made to feel like a man. She can concentrate on the long-term picture rather than be concerned with short-term, immediate worries. The title, too, mirrors this privilege – the Queen’s Gambit is an unorthodox chess opening that encourages positional play (the bigger picture) as opposed to strategic moves. Mrs. Wheatley even depends on her financially: Beth is the breadwinner, a status traditionally reserved for men, because her prize money funds their lifestyle.
Beth’s motivation is hit only once she is exposed to the demands of womanhood. When there’s nobody left to shield her from the responsibilities of growing up, Beth struggles. Her downfall – where she becomes a sloppy alcoholic – is foreshadowed by a montage of female “adulting”: a house, a legal dispute, grocery-shopping, cooking, a brief live-in relationship too. All the little things. This is when Beth is weighed down by the strain of living rather than obsessing. Suddenly, there are things at stake. It’s impossible to play with a blank slate. Time flies by, her teen years end, and she is no more insured by the linguistic intricacies of age: Once a “wild prodigy,” she is soon just a reckless young player.
In most cases, a romantic partner might have inspired a comeback. But Beth rises on her own terms. The men eventually don’t save her; they are only fated to soothe her
The miniseries is perceptive in the structure of its underdog arc. In a way, Beth returns from the dead by reclaiming her cape. The prospect of love – two ex-competitors, one chess writer – tries to rescue her at different points, but a crippled Beth resists the male-saviour syndrome. In most cases, a romantic partner might have inspired a comeback. But Beth rises on her own terms. The men eventually don’t save her; they are only fated to soothe her. They become pieces, small sacrifices in pursuit of a larger advantage: the two chess players understand her genius, the journalist broadcasts her genius. The Queen’s Gambit doesn’t disclose her journey so much as it resolves her ambition: Beth learns to soar as a girl instead of being made to fly like a man. Much of the final episode is based in Moscow, in enemy territory, where Beth takes on one Soviet grandmaster after another. It escapes nobody that Beth Harmon is dressed stylishly, like a glamorous Hollywood redhead, instead of being the bookish misfit that had ploughed through the junior ranks.
It’s a nice touch – the clothes, the confidence, the rampwalk strides, the hairdo, the respect (as opposed to Cold War antagonism) of her opponents, and the measured pace of the game. Up until then, the chess matches were cut and quickened to look sexy. Every move was an instant reaction; the tense inertia of chess is not a privilege that cinema can afford. But in Moscow, we feel the weight of Beth’s decisions. The moves look studied and planned and earned, and more human. The machine-like arrogance is missing. She is greeted by swarms of adoring women after every victory: Beth becomes an ambassador for the United States, a miracle, a symbol of changing times, a culture shock. But more than anything, Beth just becomes. It’s a terrific, emotionally intelligent hour of television – one that refuses to distinguish between the cost of sporting immortality and the price of human history. After all, one man’s superhero is another woman’s freakish chess player.