[Review] ‘THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT’ gets you excited about chess, even if you don’t play

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT

Rated TV-MA, about 393 minutes (across 7 episodes)
Director: Scott Frank
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Marielle Heller, Bill Camp, Harry Melling, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, and Moses Ingram

The only honest man in Shawshank Prison, Andy Dufrense, called chess a game for kings. Yet, the game’s most important piece is the Queen. A contradiction in terms, but one that will soon be addressed.

As someone who knows next to nothing about the game – that is to say, I don’t know my rooks from my bishops – the thought of a series being one of the great surprises this year was quite the shock. The shock wasn’t instantaneous; it didn’t even reveal itself until around the third episode. By then, the pieces had started to move, and I, like the protagonist, was working my way past the middle and awaiting the endgame.

THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT is promoted as a “Netflix drama series about addiction, obsession, trauma, and chess.” At first glance, the boiler-plate descriptor doesn’t offer much enticement. A series about a game where two people sit across from each other and move pieces around a board? Forget it. OK, how about a limited series by acclaimed screenwriter Scott Frank (OUT OF SIGHT, LOGAN) adapting Walter Tevis’ coming-of-age novel of the same name. The same Walter Tevis that authored such novels as THE HUSTLER and THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. Now things start to percolate like water in a coffee pot. That’s good because if you start watching, you may need to pour a cup or two as the episodes bleed into one gigantic chess match.

Where does one even begin with this series? Before the first game is played we must meet our heroine, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy). She is in shock. Standing lonesome on a bridge at the tender age of eight, the survivor of a car crash that kills her mother. Beth appears unharmed, with no nicks or scrapes. Without a father to speak of, she is whisked away to a Christian school for orphans. While awaiting prospective couples looking to adopt, Beth makes friends with the churlish Jolene (newcomer Moses Ingram making quite a debut) and develops a love for chess; the latter is fueled thanks to an addiction to green tranquilizers administered by the nursing staff. When she does leave school for a home residence, she takes what little belongings she has – all of which are outweighed by ego, obscure trauma, and personal shame.

THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (L to R) ANYA TAYLOR-JOY as BETH HARMON and THOMAS BRODIE-SANGSTER as BENNY in episode 103 of THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2020

Beth feels isolated even in the company of others. A ball of nerves that untangles itself once the tranquilizers she stowed away take hold, and everything becomes clear. Chess drives her. Her drug dependency is the fuel. The game rockets her to stardom in a field of play dominated by men. But as the level of competition intensifies, Beth becomes her own worst opponent, being outmaneuvered by the game of life.

Beth is dealing with some stuff that can’t be solved as if she were playing speed chess, acting on instinct and intuition. Her arc – the whole story, really – needs time. Thankfully, Anya Taylor-Joy is right to play. Playing Beth from 15 into her mid-twenties, Taylor-Joy delivers a performance that only grows and distinguishes itself the more you keep watching. Dropping her golden locks for fiery red, the change is both demure and intoxicating. Taylor-Joy could be dropped into a 1950s crime melodrama in a different era and find herself either the moll or the doll. Bookish to a fault and alluring to those Beth sits across during matches, her fingers interlocked and resting under the chin. She can be witty even when vulnerable and glamorous without being vain.

Taylor-Joy may not be wearing a crown, but she’s a queen every time she’s on screen. A vast majority has her opposite others, but the scenes with Beth alone have an energy all of their own. It’s just her and the camera. We are peering into her solitude and this quiet intrusion communicates her sensibility without needing to say anything.

For those moments that need words, we have Frank and casting director Ellen Lewis to thank. Lewis is a frequent collaborator of Martin Scorsese, has been ever since GOODFELLAS. She’s even worked on projects as varied as 13 GOING ON 30, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, and films from Jim Jarmusch. The ensemble she helped assemble includes Bill Camp as the orphanage janitor that introduces Beth to chess, Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Harry Melling (first rivals, then allies), the already mentioned Ingram, and even director Marielle Heller (A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD) as Beth’s adoptive mother. As Alma Wheatley, Heller is assured about being a caregiver only to become ambivalent as her husband leaves for business and decides never to return home.

The cast is great, Taylor-Joy is sublime, and the costumes and production design are a feast for the eyes. The different types of wallpaper in the Wheatley household alone will make you want to pause and see if you can screengrab some samples. But the props and background aesthetics are more than window-dressing; they turn up the luminescence of Beth’s fractured psyche. Stories of addiction can be overplayed to the point of being languid or a crutch that’s later abandoned. Still, Scott Frank does an admirable job at instilling to the audience that THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT is not just about playing chess the same way that Tevis’ THE HUSTLER was not just about pool sharks.

Yes, the limited series isn’t without its shortcomings. Attitudes about gender norms and 1960s womanhood are not fully explored, but the series, like an experienced chess game, tends to start quickly before slowing down as players wrestle for dominance. That is what Frank offers: a sports movie with a compelling character that is every bit as interesting as the game she plays. If age begets wisdom, Beth’s egoism leads to humble appreciation in valuing life. Using chess as a metaphor for how Beth conducts herself as she tries to find who she is as a woman, THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT is a lovely tapestry of gamesmanship. The story is a few moves ahead of the audience. By the time it’s over, we are left awestruck, willing to sacrifice a pawn to see the Queen move once more.

Grade: A-

THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT is now available to stream on Netflix.

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