The Queen’s Gambit (2020 – Netflix)
Directed by Scott Frank
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Marielle Heller, Moses Ingram, Bill Camp, Harry Melling, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Christiane Seidel, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd
Nearly a month removed from debuting on Netflix, there’s no shortage of publicity and buzz surrounding this 7 part mini-series. During these pandemic times with nearly everyone (hopefully) staying home these days, there’s a plethora of quality streaming shows to discover. (If you need recommendations, just peruse Flixchatter and you will find truly informed reviews of what’s out there.) This is the age of the streaming platform and with The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix has really stepped it up and delivered an engrossing and wildly entertaining mini-series.
Set in 1960s Kentucky, the series chronicles the rise of chess prodigy Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy). Orphaned at age 9, we see her meager beginnings at an all-girls orphanage run by the practical yet sympathetic Miss Deardorff (Christiane Seidel). While there she meets Jolene (Moses Ingram), a black orphan who takes her under her wing, showing her the ropes.
While cleaning erasers in the school’s basement, she spies Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), the school’s janitor playing chess and is intrigued to the point of obsession. She picks up the game just by watching and he proceeds to teach her the intricacies of the game as well as its etiquette. He recognizes her talent and invites a local high school chess organizer to play her. He then invites her to play the local high school team who she defeats singlehandedly. To complicate matters, Beth becomes dependent on Librium – a drug given out to the children to sedate them into compliance – a widespread and abusive practice at the time.
Eventually, she is adopted by a couple and develops a unique bond with her adoptive mother Alma (Marielle Heller) who nurtures her chess career while surrendering to her own addictions and disappointments. In the universe of high school and high stakes chess tournaments, Beth is faced with the trials of chemical dependency and psychological trauma, all in her quest at becoming a grandmaster.
Based on Walter Tevis’ novel of the same name, director Scott Frank’s adaptation is concise and well executed. Frank, who wrote Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998) and Logan (2017) has a proven track record and The Queen’s Gambit is no exception. Stylish with a good balance of wit and humor, Frank tones down the melodrama with subtle detachment. Scenes don’t seem overdone and you won’t find any extended soliloquies either. Frank gets and keeps it to the point with flair and confidence. Steven Meizler’s photography and Michelle Tesoro’s editing provide an exciting tension and suspense especially to the chess tournament sequences – no easy feat I’m sure. Gambit’s steady pacing and editing, excellent cinematography and a beautiful score (Carlos Rafael Rivera) make this binge-worthy.
The real joy here though is watching Anya Taylor-Joy’s magnetic performance as Beth Harmon. Her chameleon-like and quiet intensity is nothing short of brilliant. With silent-era charm, her strongest moments aren’t even when she speaks but when she stares down her opponent in icy coldness. It’s an establishing role in a film career that’s already well seasoned with starring roles in The Witch (2015), Thoroughbreds (2017) and most recently this year’s Emma. Supported by a terrific ensemble cast including Harry Potter’s Harry Melling in a nice grown up role and Thomas Brodie-Sangster as the likable chess champ Benny, The Queen’s Gambit is full of memorable performances making it one of the most satisfying shows to stream in 2020.
The Queen’s Gambit succeeds on so many levels. Origin story, coming-of-age, cold-war thriller, psychological drama – all apply to this highly entertaining series. Scott Frank has put together a well-oiled machine that’s fun to watch and easy to digest, so you might as well surrender to it. I’ve no doubt it will be on many critics’ top 10 lists this year.
So did you get to see THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT? Let us know what you think!