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, stars Anya Taylor-Joy (Last Night In Soho) 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.
What Is The Queen's Gambit About?
When we meet a young Elizabeth (Isla Johnston), she is quiet and unemotional, traumatised from her mother's death in a car crash. Her orphanage in Lexington, Kentucky, initially uses tranquillisers to keep its wards compliant.
Such pills are later banned by the state, but not before Beth develops an addiction. Her desire to stay tranquillised 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.
The Queen's Gambit Official Trailer
Is The Queen's Gambit Worth Watching?
In a story in the ‘coming of age’ mould wherein Beth rises from child genius and determined teenager through to a chemically dependent young adult, there are moments when things get repetitive. You yourself can see several moves ahead so that when Beth eventually loses her chess games 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, Maze Runner), 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 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 guidebook, her magnetic performance keeps you locked in check…with mate in three.
Words by Mike Record
Cast Of The Queen's Gambit
Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy who struggles with addiction. She is an orphan who discovers her incredible talent for chess at a young age and rises through the ranks of the male-dominated world of competitive chess.
Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Benny Watts, a charismatic and confident player who becomes one of Beth's main competitors and, later, a close friend and mentor.
Marielle Heller as Alma Wheatley, Beth's adoptive mother, who initially seems indifferent but eventually forms a close bond with Beth.
Harry Melling (The Pale Blue Eye) as Harry Beltik, a player initially defeated by Beth, later becoming one of her allies, helping her improve her game.
Moses Ingram as Jolene, Beth's oldest friend from the orphanage, who reappears in her life at crucial moments to offer support and guidance.
Bill Camp as Mr. Shaibel, the custodian at Methuen Home orphanage, who teaches her to play chess.
Marcin Dorociński as Vasily Borgov, the reigning world champion chess player from the Soviet Union, who is Beth's most formidable opponent.
Is The Queen's Gambit Based On A True Story?
The Queen's Gambit is not based on a true story. The limited series is based on a fictional novel by Walter Tevis, first published in 1983.
However, the series takes place against the historical backdrop of the Cold War during the 1950s and '60s, depicting the very real tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union at this time.
The USSR dominated the top ranks of competitive chess during this period, taking the gold medal in every international Chess Olympiad between 1952 and 1974.
While Beth is not explicitly based on a real person, she bears more than a passing resemblance to legendary chess prodigy and world chess champion Bobby Fischer.
How Accurate Is The Chess In The Queen's Gambit's?
The depiction of competitive chess in The Queen's Gambit is extremely accurate.
The creative team strove for authenticity in depicting chess, and chess masters Bruce Pandolfini and Garry Kasparov designed all the games to ensure every move would be accurate.
The depiction of tournaments is also very true to life, from the nitty-gritty details to the general atmosphere.
What Are The Green Pills Beth Takes?
Throughout The Queen's Gambit, Beth struggles with addiction to the green pills first given to her at the orphanage, where she discovers chess.
The orphanage touts them as “vitamins,” but they're eventually revealed to be a tranquilliser called “xanzolam,” which doesn't actually exist.
However, the pills seem to be based on chlordiazepoxide, also known as Librium, a forerunner of Valium introduced in 1960.
Librium is a sedative, often packaged in green capsules like those seen in the show, that was widely prescribed to women in the early 1960s to help treat anxiety.
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