This reviewer is of an age where, of a late-night vegetating in front of the TV and channel hopping, there was a strong possibility that some televised chess would pop up. Players frowned in concentration at either side of a 64 square board whilst hushed commentators mused on their thoughts and tactics.
There was always something oddly comforting about the battle of wits playing out on my cathode-ray tube TV whilst I lay slumped on the sofa. Yet ‘stylish’, ‘exciting’, and ‘drugged up’ were never terms I would have associated with the game. Until now.
The Queen’s Gambit, starring Anna Taylor-Joy as an orphan and sublimely gifted chess player, Elizabeth ‘Beth’ Harmon, does for chess what Game of Thrones did for appreciating the medieval balances of power. Based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Walter Tevis and set during the 1950s and 1960s, The Queen’s Gambit has been adapted for TV by Scott Frank (who also directs).
Much like Frank’s previous writing credits (the excellent Logan and equally superb Godless) The Queen’s Gambit spends its limited run time maturely exploring nuanced issues. The many outstanding qualities of the series are all rooks nesting in the sturdy castle of Frank’s writing. Sumptuous art direction, period costume design, and strong performances all nest very happily there.
When we meet a young Elizabeth (Isla Johnston) she is quiet and unemotional, traumatised from the death of her mother in a car crash. Her orphanage in Lexington, Kentucky initially uses tranquilizers to keep its wards compliant. Such pills are later banned by the state but not before Beth develops an addiction. Her desire to stay tranquilized is driven by her discovery of caretaker Mr Shaibel (Bill Camp) playing chess in the basement. As she strives to learn the game, the drugs help her visualise a chessboard on her ceiling allowing her to play out dozens of scenarios in her head.
This being the 1950s there are of course many barriers to a precocious young female chess player and The Queen’s Gambit delights in matching up a now 15-year-old Beth (Taylor-Joy) to several boys and men in order that she can thrash them on the board. As Beth ages, the series takes in themes such as adoption and how alcohol abuse often bubbles under the surface of the many apparently idyllic American homes.
The bulk of the dramatic fun comes in the first half of the series as we witness Beth grow up and begin to learn the limits of her firebrand natural talent. Her relationship with her adoptive mother, Alma (Marielle Heller) is a wonderfully explored one. Alma’s character is one that embodies underlying darkness thanks to a failing marriage, listlessness of purpose, and reliance on alcohol to get through a day. As Beth’s abilities rise and begin to pay a financial dividend, the show keeps Beth and Alma locked in a state of mutual dependency that lights up the screen.
In a story in the ‘coming of age’ mold wherein Beth rises from child genius and determined teenager, through to chemically dependant young adult, there are moments when things get repetitive. You yourself can see several moves ahead so that when Beth eventually loses and has to battle with her own demons, this is hardly a surprise.
The latter half of the series relies on essentially putting ever stronger opponents in her way (with compelling performances from Harry Melling and Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and so is not likely to challenge you narratively. But most stories can be broken down into predictable sliding of pieces. It’s not just what you do, but the way you do it, and in this, The Queen’s Gambit blitzes the board with sheer style.
What a treat for the eyes this is! From a long unbroken shot following a panicked Beth as she rushes to get to a big game on time, through to the constant visualisation of moving chess pieces like ghostly promises of possible futures, The Queen’s Gambit packs in all the glorious eye-candy it can.
Snappy edits and beautiful costumes bring the 50s and 60s to life in a hyper-real way. Whether it be the (frankly vomit worthy) over-patterned wallpaper or the many glamourous hotels that Beth visits during chess tournaments, there is barely a moment when you aren’t glued to the screen.
Which of course rings true of Taylor-Joy herself. When the subject matter is characters thinking really hard about things, you need to be able to read on an actor’s face the thoughts that stream through their mind. She runs through the whole gamut of human emotion so that watching her is more electrifying than the game itself.
Frank isn’t afraid to place the camera constantly in front of her face and Taylor-Joy more than fills that space with her steely gaze. Even when the plot feels like it is playing out of a strategy guide-book, her magnetic performance keeps you locked in check…with mate in three.
Words by Mike Record