Film & Television

‘The Queen’s Gambit’: Netflix and Thrill

As we move into month nine of staying in more than going out, Netflix and chill (not the sexual euphemism, but a more literal interpretation) has become the norm for many of us. It isn’t surprising that the streaming service, along with competitors Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney +, and others, have achieved record revenue numbers. Back in April, just five weeks into our country’s informal lockdown, Netflix had grown by 15.7 million subscribers.

In my home, we have several on-demand services, but it can be a challenge to agree on a title. My daughter, a recent college grad, prefers Gen Z favorites like anthropomorphic, animated Bojack Horseman, reruns of sitcom How I Met Your Mother, or when all else fails, scrolling through the video sharing app TikTok. My husband enjoys dark, stylish, often violent series like Justified, Peaky Blinders, and Ozark. Myself, I’ll go for indies, period adaptations, or feminist documentaries.

So, there was probably some familial eye-rolling when I suggested a miniseries based on a novel from the 1980s, set in the 1960s, and revolving around the riveting spectator sport of … chess. Let’s face it, two nerds sitting across from each other, silently moving carved pieces in prescribed geometries across a 64-square board? Audible yawn. Who could blame my nearest and dearest for being just a little skeptical. 

Seven nights later, we are in multigenerational agreement. The Queen’s Gambit is one of the best things we’ve seen in a long time. It’s smart, gorgeous, moving, and — against all odds — thrilling.

Based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis (The Hustler, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Color of Money), written by Allan Scott and Scott Frank, and directed by Frank, The Queen’s Gambit tells the story of chess prodigy Beth Harmon, a young woman whose genius with pawns, rooks, and knights, is matched only by her emotional damage and chemical dependencies. 

In the beginning of the first of seven episodes, we see Beth (the remarkable Anya Taylor-Joy, of whom I will sing praises shortly) as a young adult in the mid 1960s, passed out in a bathtub, surrounded by evidence of a night of heavy partying (including an indistinct sleeping figure in her bed). Hotel staff knocks emphatically at the door because Beth, drenched and hung over, is late for a championship match. Before we find out how it goes (and surely, it can’t go well), we’re taken back in time to when 8-year-old Beth (intense young actress Isla Johnson) survives the car crash that has killed her brilliant but disturbed mother (Chloe Pirrie). With no known family to care for her, Beth is deposited at the Methuen Christian Home for Girls, which has strict rules and a fool-proof (and apparently at the time acceptable and legal) method of keeping said girls calm, cool, and collected: daily doses of Librium.

Beth, who has some understandable attachment issues (it’s fairly clear that her mother’s death was an attempted murder-suicide) is a wiz at math, and one day when she’s completed her exam before the other girls, the teacher sends her downstairs to clean erasers. There, in the basement of the orphanage, she meets the gruff custodian Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), who introduces her to the game of chess.

Jolene (magnetic newcomer Moses Ingram), an older Methuen resident, advises Beth to save the little green pills and pop them at bedtime. The tranquilizers enable Beth to imagine the ceiling as a giant chess board, where she plays and replays moves in a surrealist dream sequence. “Chess isn’t always competitive,” she later tells a reporter, “Chess can also be beautiful.” She begins, as a child, to think of the medication as more than an escape; it’s her superpower.

A few years later, Beth is adopted by the Wheatleys, Allston (Patrick Kennedy) and Alma (Marielle Heller, acclaimed director of Can You Ever Forgive Me and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood). Her new “father” is absent more often than not (and eventually permanently so). Her new “mother” drowns her missed opportunities in booze and pills. Beth, dressed in second-hand jumpers with her institutionally cropped hair, is bullied by the cooler kids. But, as it did at Methuen, chess provides salvation.

Alma, who tries to be a good mother, but clearly has her own damage to deal with, soon realizes that Beth’s chess skills are a way up and out for both of them. They travel together from state to state and to Mexico City, where Beth makes a name for herself (first as an anomalous “female chess player,” but eventually as a champion). Alma gives her advice one minute and a sip of her Gibson the next. Affection grows on both sides, albeit gingerly.

The chess circuit also provides Beth with her first encounters with the opposite sex. While some clearly resent being beaten by “a girl,” others grow to admire and, in their own geeky way, love her. She wins most matches, but is haunted by “the Russian,” stone-faced (and KGB-escorted) Soviet champion Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski). Understanding that if she is to reach grandmaster/world champion level, her destiny awaits in Moscow, she decides to learn Russian, because … well, she may be an addict, she may be emotionally stunted, but she is inarguably a genius. And, with Taylor-Joy bringing Beth to life onscreen, she is utterly fascinating.

Taylor-Joy, who is just 24 years old, has already made a name for herself in horror (The Witch, Split), black comedy (Thoroughbreds), and period drama (Emma). She’s uniquely gorgeous, with wideset doe eyes that would make a Disney princess green with envy, and a rich interior life that’s mesmerizing to watch. Although not a chess player herself, Taylor-Joy found parallels to relate to. “Beth’s deep passion for chess is the passion that I have for my art. It felt easy to transfer the emotion.”

The cast is uniformly excellent and the production values, from lavish international settings (Uli Hanisch and Ingeborg Heinemann) to Beth’s dramatic eyeliner and go go girl-influenced wardrobe (Gabriele Binder) to the series’ lush score (Carlos Rafael Rivera) afford the prestige television experience we’ve come to expect from shows like Mad Men and Downton Abbey. Finally, cinematographer Steven Meizler and editor Michelle Tesoro (When They See Us, On the Basis of Sex) make every move as thrilling as … well … a lot more thrilling than your typical game of chess. I predict many and well-deserved Emmy nominations when the time comes.

Like so many other sports stories (because, at its heart that’s what Queen’s Gambit is), we meet a supernaturally talented player who is her own worst enemy. The sport is both central and secondary; it’s a metaphor for coming of age, battling inner demons, leaving the past in the past, but it also gives us something to root for. 

‘Didn’t think you’d ever find yourself rooting for a game of chess? You will.

Just ask my husband and daughter.

The Queen’s Gambit is available on Netflix.


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