In an age of girls becoming billionaires by doing makeup tutorials on YouTube and actresses and rap stars earning millions of dollars a post by sharing soft porn on adult subscription social media sites like OnlyFans, a limited series comes along on streaming site Netflix to tell a truly empowering story of a child prodigy turned chess Grandmaster—a female, no less.
The Queen’s Gambit
Quite simply, this is a story about a girl who loves to win. But the reasons behind her love of winning, of course, aren’t quite that simple.
It took me 5 episodes to realize just how breathtakingly beautiful this series is, and how incredibly lonely the brilliant are because they’re so set apart from the rest. That’s the nature of genius. They are often always alone.
Based on Walter Trevis’ 1983 novel of the same title, the mini-series The Queen’s Gambit is written and directed by Academy Award-nominated writer of “Logan”, Scott Frank who captures the poise, passion, and precision of the world of chess. I now understand why Chess is a showcase Olympic sport.
I only learned to play chess in high school only because I wanted to know how to play and my first (and lasting) impression of it was that it was a boring game for nerds—the ones who stayed in the classroom for Chess Club while everyone else played “real” sports like basketball and volleyball after class.
But writer and director Frank made the world of chess exciting, aspirational, sexy, and yes, even thrilling. I never thought I would go through a rollercoaster of emotion while watching a game of chess played on screen.
In chess, a queen’s gambit is an opening repertoire considered to be one of the oldest known in the history of the game. It’s a play where the queen’s bishop’s pawn is offered as sacrifice. In the mini-series, the opening move is said to set the tone and the outcome of the game itself, and chess players are often identified by the kind of game they play.
The series opens in the 1960s with young American chess champion Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) in Paris, hungover and late for a match with her finest and fiercest competitor, number one Russian world champion chess player, Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorociński). It then quickly cuts to a flashback showing 9-year old Beth (Isla Johnston) surviving a car accident that kills her mother and leaves her orphaned and submitted under the care of Methuen Home for Girls, an all-girls orphanage run by a Christian group with very strict values. It is here where she learns to play chess under the tutelage of the janitor, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) who first hesitantly teaches her but eventually discovers her gift of genius.
This gift of genius is further enhanced by green pills given as tranquilizers to the girls in Methuen, but the effect of the pills is different for Beth—it makes her hallucinate visions. And not just any hallucinations, she envisions chess game strategies on the ceiling while high on the pills. This gives her clarity and preparation when she is playing the actual game with Mr. Shaibel. Time passes, Beth grows up into a teenager, and her mentorship under Mr. Shaibel develops into a profound kind of friendship and when the moment comes for her to finally leave and get adopted, it becomes the last she sees of her mentor. Although deeply attached to him, she forges on, never looking back. All the time never showing emotion, or weakness, or even love.
She is adopted by an unhappy couple, Allston and Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller), and is thrust into the world of 1960s Lexington, Kentucky Public High School. Here, she experiences the normal world, being an outcast for her lack of fashionable clothes and good shoes and never really makes any friends. It’s only when she discovers a chess tournament in a nearby high school that she begins to find her place.
Borrowing $5 from her former mentor, Mr. Shaibel, Beth promises to pay him double when she wins the tournament. Having her first taste of the professional and competitive world of chess, it becomes very clear to her what she was born to do. Right from the start, she knows that chess is her destiny.
The first person she meets is Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), a handsome chess player, also the first person who was ever nice to her in the outside world. Beth competes for the first time as an unrated and unknown chess player against the only other woman in the competition. She beats her almost instantly and wins her way to compete with Townes whom she also beats just as instantly.
Beth soon becomes the chess player to beat and her winning streak leads her to compete in tournaments across America. Her adoptive mother, Alma acts as her legal guardian and becomes both her enabler and supporter. Beth develops a very close relationship with her and finds security in her company even if she could very well do everything on her own. While she rapidly rises as the chess champion to beat, most of her fame is attributed to her being a girl. And her being a girl makes her the only one that sticks out in an esteemed company of a male-dominated sport.
But as much as Beth is a girl below 18, her instincts are sharper than any man. Her skill and style make her a formidable player, both qualities threatening and attractive to her opponents. As she makes it her young life’s mission to defeat noteworthy opponents like Harry Beltik (Harry Melling) and Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), her game gets even better and her beauty becomes so undeniable and irresistible. Beltik and Watts both befriend her after they lose to her and fall under her spell. Beth, in turn, beds them after she beats them and then disposes of them when she’s done with them. Typical male behavior in the psyche of an adolescent female. Again, never feeling anything for anyone except for the first man she ever met—Townes, who, unfortunate for her cannot feel any attraction for her. He is confused by her, but ultimately, only wants to be friends. Even so, she is unfazed by this. Love is never her motivation, but rather her insatiable desire to win.
Beth’s imminent rise to the top is coupled with her growing addiction to tranquilizer pills and dependence on alcohol which she feels are necessary for winning. She becomes the most successful in the game but, nearly loses everything when she loses Alma, the woman she has grown to call her mother. Yet even in Alma’s death, she remains unmoved and without emotion. She doesn’t even cry for her or grieve her loss. In fact, she continues to win at the game and love winning.
It is only when she experiences her first defeat that she completely falls apart. And it was in the hands of Russian Grandmaster Borgov.
Beth falls deeper into addiction and inevitably spirals out of control. Her internal story catches up with her physical story arc as flashbacks are revealed in each of the 7 episodes to help the viewer better understand her motivations and see cracks in her stoical demeanor. We begin to now see her weakness. She loses her motivation, even at the rescuing of people who truly love her, Harry Beltik, Benny Watts, and even her kindred soul at Methuen, a fellow orphan named Jolene played by newcomer Moses Ingram. It is only when she finds out that her childhood friend and mentor Mr. Shaibel passes away that she shows emotion and finally breaks down. Discovering he has been behind her all along, Beth finds out that she was never really ever alone in her journey. She recovers her footing and goes back on her quest to become World Champion and go head to head once more and redeem herself from Borgov, the only man who beat her at the only thing she lives for, the game of chess.
Ever since its release, The Queen’s Gambithas drawn praise from viewers and critics alike touting its success as “a period drama done right.”
Three things make the series successful for me.
First is the tour de force performance of Anya Taylor-Joy. Her transcendent portrayal of Beth Harmon from awkward teen to sophisticated world chess champion is measured, mindful, and masterful. Her mannerisms change as her character ages. From her thoughtful gaze to the control of the cadence in her voice to the way she glides across a room to the way her fingers move chess pieces, she is just so magnetic to watch. Hard to believe she’s only 24 with the amount of acting arsenal in her war chest. It can be quite burdensome to let a relative newcomer carry a series, but Taylor-Joy does it so triumphantly. In one press interview, she said that upon reading the script, she found herself immediately in the character. She understood her aloneness. And this is why she became Beth Harmon. Anya Taylor-Joy is indeed a fine actress, one to watch and a queen in the making.
Another is the cinematography. The series is shot so beautifully—the picture composition, the artful framing, and the technique of the camerawork are just marvelous. The camera draws in closer when you have earned intimacy with the character and pulls away every time a new journey is taken. The camera work in the final episode is particularly commendable as it pulls out of the window of the room of the men set to defeat Beth and moves into a close-up of her to see the quiet, almost unnoticeable strength in her character at her most alone moment. You feel even more drawn to her at the end of seven episodes. She is one spectacular character study.
Third and finally is the milieu. Who could have expected the world of Chess to be such a compelling drama—filled with emotion and storied existences? A game of chess requires careful study and intense strategy and, surprisingly, because of this series, a great deal of teamwork and a wealth of experience in being on your own. Because to achieve victory at this game of pawns and bishops and kings, it takes complete mastery of oneself, a lot of sober judgment, and plenty of overcoming adversity to become a queen.
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