The most addictive chess tournament you’ll ever watch
Rhea Srivastava -
It’s a scene we’ve seen time and time again, in cinema, literature, and television, a trope that if not done well could be a stereotype: the artist who paints his masterpiece with near-lunacy, the professor who throws himself into an insane personal world before the next big discovery, the danseuse who kills herself trying to master her craft. It’s as if madness goes hand-in-hand with creativity, insight, drive, and greatness. So when chess prodigy Beth Harmon is close to destroying herself with tranquillizers, her sweet boyfriend and former chess player Harry can see it… that look in her eyes - the one he’s read about in the greatest Grandmasters of all time with their downward spirals.
What is the story about?
This is a recurring theme in the works of Walter Tevis, the novelist who wrote the source material for ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ back in 1983. The power of obsession and the downside of being a genius were things he often spoke about, even in works like The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth (both made into movies). I can’t say that I am too familiar though, with a successful adaptation for the screen of such a tale which is based amidst a sport. One would think that the competitive world of chess-playing would only be exciting for those who play the game and study the masters. But Scott Frank’s fantastic seven-hour miniseries proves otherwise.
Anya Taylor-Joy breathes life into Beth in this coming-of-age tale which traces her beginnings from a childhood of abandonment and trauma. She spends a quiet and sullen time at an orphanage in Kentucky, with the support of fellow orphan Jolene and a daily dose of tranquillizer drugs… until she plays her first game of chess with the janitor Mr. Shaibel. It seems that drugs help sharpen her senses and visualize the game. By the time she is sixteen, she has been adopted and is ready to compete in the US Open Championship. With each passing tournament, the stakes to win keep going up, and her addiction increases, the title of Grandmaster seeming further and further away. She accumulates many lovers and friends on the way, alienating each of them due to her lack of control and her need to win the game at any cost.
It really doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen or played a game of chess in your life, but if you know any sport, you know that a player’s every move is reflective of their intelligence, their anxiety, and their character. ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ isn’t too different from a sport in the way it provides a nail-biting and detail-oriented character study of Beth. The way it perfectly mirrors a game of chess, however, is that chess is a game that starts off slow with only a certain number of ways that players can open (as Beth masters all of the ‘Modern Chess Openings’ as the reference book goes). Players usually try to deduce their opponent’s strategy and style before going in with an attack which while aggressive is almost always methodical. One wrong move and it could be game over or even a draw. There are many definitive endings and the mark of a player’s character is if s/he plays to win or plays to complete the game.
The first episode gets the ball rolling with the quiet and predictable setup of the socially inept recluse Beth, who finds solace in her natural talent and ability to learn the moves of the game, but since she is often berated for her unladylike pursuit and her inability to connect to others, we also see how substance abuse becomes the only way she can function. An issue that will take precedence over everything in her future as an adult and a chess player. The initial hook for the next few episodes is the excitement of her discovering state and national championships for herself and her adoptive mother. Beth never loses a game and her rise to the top is gripping to watch. Soon, she is a hustler out to make extra cash to satiate her thirst for books for chess and fashionable clothing. We also get to study the other players around her - what the game means to them and how they come into Beth’s life as a result of her unresolved traumas and instruments to her healing. It is in the last three episodes that the show starts losing some momentum as if Beth’s addiction is caught off-guard by the opponent’s move of the human drama we’ve been watching so far. She is mostly high - sweaty, nervous, emotional, and a physical wreck. But like any nail-biting finish, we still want to see if she will ever be able to play the recovery of being the respected professional and Grandmaster of the game, or will she succumb to the defeat of being her own worst enemy. The Queen’s Gambit has a complex narrative, but it is the fascinating world created for and around Beth by Scott Frank that makes the show as addictive as its protagonist’s predicament.
The first episode of The Queen’s Gambit has Isla Johnston portrays the quiet and controlled Beth. It is only from the second episode onwards that Taylor-Joy takes the reins to give what can only be described as a career-defining performance, and the ability to take that transition in her stride is rare in itself. Beth is extremely intelligent and gifted, but she is also quick-witted. Her isolated childhood and the fact that she is a prodigy make it obvious that she would be unable to practice self-control and live on intuition. When Beth is sober, she shows immense compassion to others, but when she is under the influence, she is horrid in her anger. She is a world of contradictions but Taylor-Joy is able to capture the entire gamut of playing Beth perfectly. Even though many of her well-wishers condemn her need to win the game, it’s not like she miraculously lets that go at the end. And the fact that her entire character is driven by sole motivation (even if she is great at chess) could make her unlikable. Taylor-Joy is never unlikable. She makes Beth a wonderful hero(ine) worth rooting for till the end. Then there’s Moses Ingram as Jolene who harnesses Beth’s out-of-control behaviour with her reasoning and quiet strength. Filmmaker Marielle Heller steps in as Alma Wheatley, the adoptive mother, in a memorable performance.
Beth also gets three proper suitors through the show. But as her mother reminds her in her memories, the strength of a woman is in her ability to be fine alone. Beth isn’t defined by her lovers or her ability to snag men in spite of her self-esteem issues and unconventional looks. None of the romantic plots dominates the main character. Jacob Fortune-Lloyd plays the charming Townes for whom Beth carries unrequited affection. Harry Melling is the protective and supportive State Champion who can’t keep up with her speed. Thomas Brodie-Sangster is the cocky National Champion with whom she has electrifying chemistry and perfect understanding. They’re all instrumental in advising Beth towards the point where she is the one in control of her momentum.
Music & Other Departments
The Queen’s Gambit is aesthetically one of the most elegant and stunning series on Netflix. It is not just the chess sequences which are choreographed into a tapestry of visceral mind-games and heightened crescendo. The production design embodies the vibrant boldness and kitschy aesthetic of its time period. Steven Meizler’s cinematography gives us comfort with every hue, even the gloomy dullness of the orphanage. The costumes by Gabriele Binder and the hair and makeup by Daniel Parker bring a glamorous flair to a game that is dominated by monotonically suited white men. The score is eclectic and modern, but the soundtrack uses many classic songs from the era that you will add to your playlist.
None of these smaller stories or the larger plot comes across as a cliche (even if the climax could). The moment the show goes into familiar territory, the writing plays an unexpected move where characters behave out-of-the-ordinary. Even in the slowest sequences, The Queen’s Gambit doesn’t have a dull moment. Most of the series is adrenaline-pumping ‘will she win?’ energy and even her redemptive arc isn’t done in the schmaltzy way it happens in usual sports dramas. The series is at par with any prestige TV drama in the way it is tastefully written, performed, and produced. Frank has keenly studied the grandeur and proportion of the novel and allowed it to be laid out as a significantly epic show. Taylor-Joy is spectacular.
There are some points in the final act when the show stumbles to seam together many of the threads that Beth’s addiction lays bare, which make it seem a bit slow.
Did I enjoy it?
Yes! The Queen’s Gambit went against my initial belief that a chess show would be dull and boring. It was one of the easiest binges of the year. And the fact that it is a hopeful story about finding community, family, and yourself for a misunderstood figure is a heartening theme for a contemporary show anyway.
Do I recommend it?
Yes! The show is a standout for women making it in a male-dominated subculture. And more than that, it’s just immensely watchable.