Plot: Abandoned and entrusted to a Kentucky orphanage in the late 1950s, Beth Harmon discovers an astonishing talent for chess while developing an addiction to tranquilizers provided by the state as a sedative for the children. Haunted by her personal demons and fueled by a cocktail of narcotics and obsession, Beth transforms into an impressively skilled and glamorous outcast while determined to conquer the traditional boundaries established in the male-dominated world of competitive chess.
Review: Chess is not the sexiest of board games (that honor goes to Othello. Don’t ask). It has not fared much better on the big screen either unless you count the Christopher Lambert movie KNIGHT MOVES or that one scene in THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR. From the trailers for The Queen’s Gambit, this looked like a movie that could break that trend with the alluring and talented Anya Taylor-Joy in the lead. Needless to say, this limited series is not sexy but rather a blunt look at substance abuse and addiction. It is an enthralling and beautifully shot tale that uses the game of kings as a conduit to telling a vital and relevant story from one of the most underappreciated novelists of the twentieth century.
Written and directed by Scott Frank (OUT OF SIGHT, LOGAN), The Queen’s Gambit is based on the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis. Tevis only wrote six novels in his lifetime, three of which were adapted into the feature films THE HUSTLER, THE COLOR OF MONEY, and THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. If you are familiar with those movies or books, you know they are not easy material. The Queen’s Gambit is no exception and is distinct in that it follows a female protagonist in an overwhelmingly male-dominated realm. But, unlike Disney’s similar THE QUEEN OF KATWE, this chess prodigy lives a much darker life but quite possibly the best story about chess put to screen. But make no mistake, this is no aspirational tale as the character of Beth Harmon succumbs to her addictions as she rises up the ladder of the best at the game.
Set across the 1950s and 1960s, The Queen’s Gambit follows Beth Harmon from her tragic youth at an orphanage through her rise in the global chess ranks. As she struggles to create friendships with her peers, several figures in her life guide her journey from prodigy to fallen star. Starting with fellow orphan Jolene (Moses Ingram) who shows her how to take advantage of the tranquilizers given to the children and eventually her adoptive mother Alma (Marielle Heller) who has substance abuse issues of her own, Beth masks her loneliness under pills and alcohol. Eventually, the janitor (Bill Camp) discovers her skills at chess and fosters her talent.
As she gets older, Anya Taylor-Joy is able to play Beth as a believable teenager as well as a twenty-something woman. Taylor-Joy has shown incredible range on-screen in THE WITCH through SPLIT and THE NEW MUTANTS, but The Queen’s Gambit is one of her top performances to date. At times, Beth seems like she could be on the autism spectrum and at others, she is calculating. She goes from naive and innocent to broken and brilliant through the six-episode series and she commands the screen with grace. There is also a great turn by Thomas Brodie-Sangster as U.S. Chess Champion Benny Watts who turns from Beth’s friend to foe over the series.
Scott Frank visualizes Beth’s burgeoning chess ability in unique ways that also serve as metaphors for her growth as a woman as well as her descent into addiction. He also manages to make the competition scenes at tournaments as exciting as any sports movie while in other scenes allowing the chess to be sexy. But even without the chess, The Queen’s Gambit works as a period drama. The set design and soundtrack put you right in the mid-20th century replete with fashion and pop culture references that give this series a feel that is reminiscent of REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, A BEAUTIFUL MIND, and Mad Men. Leaving much of the series to the dialogue, Carlos Rafael Rivera’s score is one of my favorites of the year as it adds a very cinematic element to the tale.
Had The Queen’s Gambit been adapted as a feature film, it would have lost much of the journey that informs the rise and fall of Beth Harmon. Tevis’ novel packs a lot of character development and none of these six episodes lags or feels unnecessary. Scott Frank and Anya Taylor-Joy are a perfect pairing of actor and filmmaker and I would love to see them work together after this series. Netflix is the perfect home for The Queen’s Gambit and I truly hope many of you discover this series. This is an intricately constructed story that moves as deliberately as pieces on a chessboard and yet it plays on the screen as effortlessly as the characters play the game. The Queen’s Gambit is a must-see.
The Queen’s Gambit premieres October 23rd on Netflix.