The Queen’s Gambit was released on Netflix at the end October and is being widely lauded as a major success and the inspiration behind a rise in chess set sales. Why should you watch it? We give the lowdown…
The Queen’s Gambit is based on the 1983 Walter Tevis novel of the same name, and billed as is a coming-of-age story that explores the true cost of genius. In fact it is a lot more than that, as this series demonstrates. The official synopsis also tells us: abandoned and entrusted to a Kentucky orphanage in the late 1950s, a young Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy — Peaky Blinders and Emma) discovers an astonishing talent for chess while developing an addiction to tranquillisers provided by the state as a sedative for the children. Haunted by her personal demons and fuelled by a cocktail of narcotics and obsession, Beth transforms into an impressively skilled and glamorous outcast while determined to conquer the traditional boundaries established in the male-dominated world of competitive chess. So far so good, but why watch?
The series is directed and written by two-time Academy Award nominee Scott Frank and executive produced by Frank, William Horberg and Allan Scott, who also co-created the series. If you don’t know, Scott Frank also wrote the exceptional Netflix series Godless. On release in 2017, Godless garnered praise for writing, directing, cinematography and much else. If by any chance you’ve not watched that series, consider it a bonus recommendation. The trailer should immediately pique your interest.
Anya Taylor-Joy is extraordinarily good. She make a more than passably convincing teenage prodigy and has the face and figure for late 1960s fashion. While she is centre stage, and a vast contrast to fields of all-male (and either suit-wearing or badly dressed) opposition, the rest of the cast are more than window dressing. They include Marielle Heller, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Moses Ingram, Harry Melling and Bill Camp; Brodie-Sangster was also notable in Godless and is a central character here as well.
Chess and more
The Queen’s Gambit isn’t just about Chess. Well, there’s a lot of chess, but rather than filling the screen with long impenetrable games, we get a character study in conflict, passion, being a child prodigy and just how impressive the minds of truly great players are. We learn about competitions, odd rules, clocks and international travel. While the conflict is mostly confined to 64 black and white squares, Beth Harmon has her own problems, dealing with craving for alcohol and the impact of being an orphan.
Her adopted mother is interesting in her own right and the relationship she has with Beth drives the core of the central episodes of The Queen’s Gambit. The story avoids predictable tropes of intergenerational tension replacing it with a touching study of two people bonding. Relationships are key to much of the power of the series and add to the feel good factor.
A history lesson
Beyond the main story there are many obvious observations on a glamorous young woman challenging the status quo of male dominated international chess. Set in the 1960s we also get a general feel of the slowly changing role of women in society as well as racial discrimination. It’s all about real people with ambition, not conflict for the sake of drama.
The largest battle is both Beth’s eventual challenge to be World Champion, and in so doing finally beat (or not, no spoilers here) Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorociński) and the fact the best players at this time are Russian. There’s a Cold War flavour in a lot of the series, all accurate and reminiscent in some ways of the classic Fischer-Spassky match in Iceland 1972 (the so-called match of the century). Be being so startlingly different, Beth’s mere existence enhances the cultural differences between East and West and is another element of the show’s appeal.
So there you have it. Do take the time to watch The Queen’s Gambit, and let us know what you thoughts in the comments. You might also take a look at the official trailer.