The Queen’s Gambit review: Enthralling and elegant, Netflix delivers one of the best shows of 2020
The Queen’s Gambit
Director - Scott Frank
Cast - Anya Taylor-Joy, Bill Camp, Marielle Heller, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Harry Melling
The most thrilling scenes in The Queen’s Gambit, the terrific new Netflix miniseries, unfold across a chessboard. These battles are more magnificent to behold than any large-scale clash that Ridley Scott has ever filmed.
Based on the novel by Walter Tevis, the a seven-part series is co-created and directed by Scott Frank, the man behind Godless — one of 2017’s best shows. But this is no Western, although its sensibilities are similarly old-fashioned. It’s the sort of prestige drama that Netflix should be producing more often — a show that will draw both audiences and admiration.
Watch the Queen’s Gambit trailer here
My old English professors would describe it as a bildungsroman, and I can almost picture some of them gleefully dissecting its feminist themes and literary influences. In the fine tradition of stories such as Jane Eyre and Harry Potter, The Queen’s Gambit is also about an orphan — a chess prodigy named Beth Harmon. The series tells her story from the age of eight to 22, as she evolves from an abandoned misfit into one of the greatest champions the world of chess has ever seen.
We see her arrive at an austere orphanage in the 1950s, a remnant and reminder of her mother’s suicide attempt. She braves the regimental rigidity of her new home by seeking solace in the basement, where a lonely janitor named Mr Shaibel spends his spare time by playing chess with himself. He reluctantly takes the curious Beth under his wing, and teaches her the basics of the game. Within days, she’s drubbing him in less than a dozen moves. He leans back in awe, barely able to comprehend Beth’s genius. The innocent girl asks if she’s any good. “To tell you the truth of it, child, you’re astounding,” he says.
The Queen’s Gambit isn’t as much a show about chess as it is a show about kindness. Mr Shaibel (Bill Camp) would be the first person in Beth’s life to offer her a shoulder to lean on, as she struggles with the onset of mental illness and a debilitating dependency on drugs.
Over the next few years, as Beth goes from winning local tournaments to being hailed as America’s foremost challenger against the Soviets — a proxy war that unfolded in real life as well, when Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky faced off at the height of the Cold War — many others align themselves with her. Some are in it for the attention that Beth brings, but over the course of her young life, she forges a series of genuine relationships — from Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller), the woman who adopts her as a teenager and encourages her passion for chess, to the many men who are drawn to her alluring nature.
We learn about Sicilian defences and doubled pawns; about adjournments and endgames. But at no point is the show inaccessible. This is a remarkable achievement. It moves elegantly and enthrallingly, without ever alienating its audience.
It manoeuvres around the traps that have consumed innumerable movies in the past — movies that spend way too long at the table, and waste a disproportionate amount of time trying to teach the viewer pointless details about the game. Although I am willing to wager that it will meet the standards of any chess expert who wishes to scrutinise its accuracy.
Scott Frank is too smart a storyteller to get sidetracked by unnecessary distractions — and some of his techniques here are downright brilliant. He knows that there is no point in training a camera on the chessboard and expecting the audience to follow. So instead, he trains the camera on his actors’ faces, and relies on their emotions to guide the viewer into the narrative.
Some of the show’s best face-offs are literally that — two characters, sitting across each other, engaged in a mental duel. In a few of the most high-stakes matches, the chessboard isn’t even seen. That’s an astonishingly bold directorial decision to have made. If Beth corners her opponent, as she often tends to, we don’t see it represented by the falling of a rook, but we see it in star Anya Taylor-Joy’s eyes. And what enchanting eyes they are — capable of communicating more eloquently than a thespian with 12 Tonys.
She’s breathtaking as Beth, a character whose journey begins, essentially, in the corner of the chessboard of life, with the universe constantly whispering in her ear: ‘check’. She’s aided by a rich cast of supporting characters, and impeccable work by the technical departments. For a show that should be studied in film schools for how well it handles exposition — there’s barely any — it relies more heavily on the music, sets, costumes and visuals for support. They’re flawless — particularly the lush orchestral score, by Carlos Rafael Rivera.
The Queen’s Gambit soars with the sort of confidence on screen that Beth displays on the board. It relies on its audience to connect the dots themselves; nudging them in the right directions, but resisting the urge to feed crucial information through clunky dialogue and plot contrivances. This makes the payoffs all the more satisfying, because you feel a sense of accomplishment for having arrived at the correct conclusions.
Barring the odd clearing of the throat and the occasional exchange of pleasantries, chess is a largely silent sport. There is neither a need nor necessity for talk. And that is how Beth behaves in life as well. Her anguish is so internalised that the only way she knows how to express herself is on the board. And there, she is ruthless, remorseless, and unrelenting.
I don’t know much about chess, but years ago, I read somewhere that the great tennis champion Rafael Nadal wins half his matches before a single shot has been played. His body language in the tunnel on the way to the court, his pre-match routine as he readies himself for the coin toss, and his imposing presence as he approaches his opponent to wish them good luck; he’s beaten them mentally before he can wear them out physically.
And as Beth Harmon takes her seat across her challengers — entitled and arrogant men of all ages — she glances up from the board, and with the briefest of looks, pierces their souls with her eyes. She sees fear. And what they see rattles them: a young girl, more skilled than they could ever imagine to be. In those moments, before either player is on the clock, Beth knows that she has won. And not just at chess.
More of this, please. Your move, Netflix.