Spoilers will offer a draw.
Sometimes it’s hard to find a Netflix “TV Show” (that name might need a rebranding) that I like. There’s a few I’ve tried and not enjoyed. Then this one appeared in my sights and it does seemed well-thought it. The colors, the acting, the characters and, of course, the lead are quite top shelf. Not to mention, the idea of setting it up in the sixties without necessarily making it about the sixties does give it a unique atmosphere and style. It’s a limited series of seven episodes, easy to process but hard to forget.
The Queen’s Gambit (2020) was created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott, based upon the 1983 novel of the same name written by Walter Tevis. A young child named Beth Harmon (Annabeth Kelly) loses her mother and is sent to an orphanage. As she grows up, Beth (Isla Johnson) acquires both a trait and a vice. She becomes completely obsessed with playing chess after watching custodian Mr Schaibel (Bill Camp) who is reluctant but ends up becoming her teacher. She also becomes addicted to the tranquilizers given to the children, even after the practice is stopped. Eventually she grows up (Anya Taylor-Joy) and as a teenager gets adopted by the Wheatleys, Alma (Mariene Heller) and Allston (Patrick Kennedy).
After Allston ups and leaves on a business trip where he’s supposedly indefinitely detained, Alma realizes she’s been abandoned and starts to drink and become addicted to pills. Meanwhile, Beth starts to enter chess games and meet players like Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) and Harry Beltik (Harry Melling) who she eventually befriends. As she starts winning, she shares this with her mother Alma who actually starts supporting her. When Beth faces a challenge against US champion Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Alma surprised me by actually being motherly and showing her adoptive daughter a valuable lesson.
I was initially dreading Alma becoming an antagonist, but fortunately the show doesn’t take that route. The surprising aspect of making chess game less of a cutthroat environment and far more sociable is one I welcomed. It is nice to see how Beth’s most memorable opponents end up becoming her friend, allies or in some cases, even a plausible love interest. When Beth loses against major competitor as she moves up, the odds are raised just as she comes closer to winning the top spot.
I like the fact that although Beth is portrayed as a razor-sharp mind and an aggressive player, she slowly also starts to come on her own as a grown woman. It’s also refreshing to see her having matches outside the US and in places where the narration is done on other languages. It’s hard to picture anybody but Anya Taylor-Joy in the role of Beth as her whole face conveys the gravitas of each match.
The cinematography is rich without being saturated. The change from the fifties to the sixties as Beth grows up is not very noticeable, but it does become more colorful as Beth’s career in the game grows. I appreciated that the color palette is chosen subdued without going into a pastel hell. When Beth starts going to public school as a teenager, she obviously is not able to afford things like fashionable clothing. It feels normal and yet it’s own world for the show.
Extremely recommended for a well executed-show more than an actual genre. Perhaps some audiences will not find it their cup of tea, but they should really give it a chance. Technically it’s a sports storyline, but you don’t have to be a fan of chess to enjoy it. It’s also a coming-of-age story with a tournament arc and a protagonist that is both overpowered and flawed at once. Overall it is well-executed and with strong performances with memorable characters that have depth and are engaging to watch.
That will do for now.