Chess does not have an exciting reputation. Chess could be a fun hobby to pick up and appealing to play if you really know how, but it’s hard to imagine enjoying a movie about it. Chess? Really? The board game? This can be a limiting mindset, though. In reality, anything can be interesting if written as such. It’s especially simple when viewing the game through the eyes of someone who loves it, which is exactly what happens in the new miniseries from Netflix, The Queen’s Gambit.
The 60s period piece follows the life story of Beth Harmon after she is orphaned at 8 years old following the death of her mother. She witnesses the custodian play chess and becomes bewitched with the game, silently befriending him as he shows her the ropes. She is gifted and quickly surpasses the skills of the custodian. This is also where Beth’s substance abuse problems begin, as she quickly becomes addicted to the tranquillizers given to all the girls at the orphanage. She becomes adopted at 15 and truly begins her quest to become a chess grandmaster.
To address the elephant in the room, The Queen’s Gambit is not boring. Chess will never be exciting for the layperson to sit down and watch, and the miniseries knows this. It isn’t important for the audience to know the ins and outs of chess strategy. They can tell if a play is good or bad by how the characters reactions, how Beth thinks of her strategies and other players’ through her ramblings, and just how good Beth is through the way others describe her offence. Not only that, but chess means something to Beth beyond proving herself the best and how the game operates represents something in her own life. And so chess is not a detriment to the watchability of the show, but becomes another tool in understanding the characters.
Another positive is Anya Taylor-Joy’s portrayal of Beth Harmon. She captivatingly embodies the stiff but curious demeanor of Beth in a particular way. The coldly confident female character is generally an unpopular one, but Taylor-Joy breathes enough life into the performance that the audience can’t help but to root for her. She’s an underdog who comes from nothing trying to get her way to the top, and her faults as a character are both biproducts of her upbringing and a desperate attempt to rise above it, making her an easy character to sympathize with.
The time period is almost a character in and of itself. The settings, costuming, and style of the time are so inherent to the aesthetic of the show. Not only that, but the attitudes of the period, rigid conservatism and the societal biproducts of the cold war also come into play. Instead of treating the 60s as a blanket aesthetic, the show differentiates the different kinds of styles popular at the time in the different characters that don them. This enhances all the other qualities within the show and enhances its personality.
The main fault with the series, though, is that as it progresses, much of the nuance the first couple of episodes began building to seems to fizzle out. The series needs to juggle not only Beth’s substance abuse, difficulty forming interpersonal relationships, and her exploration of sexuality and romance, but also her one-track minded desire to become the best at chess and how her genius feeds into her fear of burning out and following her mother’s footsteps into insanity. All of these can coexist in one female character, but it is a lot to balance in one person and The Queen’s Gambit seems to miss the mark. The best complex portrayals of women come from female creative teams, and while writer and director Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Marley & Me, Logan) and writer Allan Scott (Don’t Look Now, The Preacher’s Wife) adapt Walter Tevis’ novel into a cohesive and engaging miniseries, they lack the perspective to truly elevate the material. The writing near the end also stunts and defaults into traditional Hollywood tropes, which is a bit disappointing considering that the foundation of the series is a deviation from what the audience considers the norm.
The Queen’s Gambit is an enticing show. It is not without its faults, but Taylor-Joy’s performance of a struggling Beth Harmon is enough to keep the audience captivated and invested. I still may not know a great deal about chess, but I now have another insight on the human experience and what it means to be alive.