“The Queens Gambit,” November, 2020, Netflix Limited Series. Several folks asked that I do a review of this limited TV series. It is very hard to do without numerous spoilers, but I’ll try.
I very much enjoyed this 7-episode drama about a young woman chess prodigy during the 1950s into the 1960s. It is not a based-on-fact story, but rather a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, whose other novels include “The Hustler,” “The Color of Money,” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” It is, however, a remarkable example of creating the fictional world while keeping so much right. It follows the uneven path of Beth Harmon (superbly brought to life by Anya Taylor-Joy) from young orphan through her various successes and failures in chess and in life. It provides a fascinating look (albeit fictional at the time) at the tension of a female prodigy in a game that was, otherwise, entirely male dominated. It offers many insights on gender and stereotyping, on misogyny, on obsession, on system vs. spontaneity, on individualism vs. teamwork, on love and friendship, on what makes some people run, play, implode, succeed, fail, recover, and much more. What are the costs of success? This is the US and race, of course plays a part in this story although it comes dangerously close to the person of color who magically rescues and teaches the white protagonist.
Mostly, at least according to the interviews with chess gods and goddesses (there are more now), the show’s portrayal of tournament chess is remarkably accurate. A chess choreographer was brought in to map moves as if they were a dance. Former world champion Gary Kasparov (a consultant on this) has noted this is as close to real tournament play, practices, culture, scenarios as it can be. That makes for really gripping drama. The series is made much richer by the characters who become Harmon’s friends, mentors, her rivals, her lovers – and they are sometimes the same people — and others in her life. They are well-crafted and well-acted and enrich the story; they’re complicated as opposed to cardboard cutouts,
Anya Taylor-Joy should be up for an Emmy and Golden Globe for this one. She has already been noted for her chops with awards for her horror film and sci-fi work, and even a Chopard Trophy at Cannes (2017) for best female up-and-coming actress. I’m not a big sci-fi fan and am even less fond of most horror films (although “Get Out” and “Sorry to Bother You” truly rock) so I didn’t know her work. But she’s quite a marvel, expressing intensity, emotion, and amazing coldness. She is an incredibly controlled presence before the camera, something that might come from her background in modeling and dance as well as acting. She can do amazing things with her eyes. It’s a serious joy to watch her work. The music used in the show is also quite interesting. It’s very pop and time specific, but it tends toward pop at the edge of alternative rock.
There are plot devices in this that I distrust. I find elements of the drug dependency subplot not just unconvincing but really wrongheaded. Not dependency, per se, but the type of drugs. Male gallantry is also overstated. I get it, it’s fiction, but those elements just seemed really wrong to me. Her issues with alcohol seem much more reasonable, as do her general alienation and caution with most other people and especially men. The game remains male dominated.
In total, however, the show really works. See this one if you can.