– The Queen’s Gambit a stylish period sports drama
THE Queen’s Gambit is a move in chess that dates back to the 15th century, making it the oldest opening move ever. It’s now the title of a hit Netflix miniseries, based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis about a fictional chess prodigy, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy.) It starts in the 1950s in Kentucky when Beth gets orphaned as a 9-year old girl after her mom died in a car crash.
She is brought to Methuen Home for Girls where she and the other wards are given tranquilizers to control them, which starts her addiction to pills. While cleaning their blackboard erasers, she sees their building custodian and janitor, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), playing chess and asks him to teach him how to play it.
Her quick understanding of the game is by instinct and intuition and she quickly develops deep affinity for the sport. At night, she can visualize herself playing chess with the ceiling as the chess board. She quickly masters the game and Mr. Shaibel is so impressed he sends her to a high school where she easily beats all the other players, mostly male.
At 13, she’s adopted by a couple. The wife, Mrs. Wheatley (Marielle Heller) is a lonely woman who needs a companion at home as her husband is always traveling on business. Beth is sent to a local high school where she is bullied by the other girls. She then joins a regional chess tournament and wins even if she has no previous experience in joining such a competition.
This opens other doors for her, at a time when Mrs. Wheatley’s husband has deserted her, so her winnings from chess become their main source of income. She is invited to play in more chess tournaments, including the U.S. Open in Las Vegas in 1966 where she tied with the current champion, Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie Sangster), giving her national recognition in a male-dominated field.
The mean girls in school are suddenly nice to her and invites her to their sorority party, where Beth realizes she really has nothing in common with giddy teenage girls like them. She starts drinking heavily, along with her adoptive mom. While they are in Mexico, Beth competes with the Russian champion, Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski), and she loses. When she returns to their hotel room, she discovers that her mom died in her sleep, diagnosed by a doctor as caused by hepatitis.
Now alone and eager for more exciting life experiences, she gets more enamoured with alcohol but finds serious romance quite elusive. She once had a big crush with a rival and photographer called D.L.Townes (Jacob Lloyd) and when they meet again in Las Vegas, she willingly goes to his hotel room with him, but gets surprised when along comes Townes’ hunky roommate called Roger.
“The Queen’s Gambit” is a success, rags-to-riches story for Beth and also a personal journey of self-discovery for her. Winning in Moscow against Borgov becomes her search for the Holy Grail. Superbly directed by Scott Frank (who also did the excellent western series, “Godless”, and the hit film “Out of Sight”), it’s a well produced period drama with detailed production design, costumes and songs that capture the look and feel of the era.
The meticulous cinematography complements the design, like that astonishing tracking shot in that scene that follows Beth as she walks around the cavernous lobby of a period Las Vegas Hotel, and another shot from a hotel window in Moscow leaving Borgov’s room then going around outside the hotel to get into Beth’s room.
“The Queen’s Gambit” is also a compelling sports movie about the coming of age of an orphan chess wiz. It’s anchored mainly on the vulnerable but tenacious performance of Anya Taylor-Joy who manages to be believable as a teenager and as she ages onward.
She’s the center of the story and she inhabits the role perfectly, excelling even in her quiet moments and playing chess like she really means serious business to always stay on top of her game. The wonder of it all is that she remains to be a luminously beautiful redhead, seemingly never really being hurt by the ravages of all the drug and alcohol abuse she is subjecting herself to.
The whole acting ensemble is splendid, from the building custodian/janitor Mr. Shaibel and Jolene (Moses Ingram), Beth’s best friend in the orphanage, to her chess rivals who later become her friends (also lovers). One of the show’s most touching moments is when she visits their orphanage with Jolene and discovers that the late Mr. Shaibel has kept newspaper clippings of her rise in the chess world, indicating that he closely followed her career.
The final scene is very touching. Beth walks around Moscow and meets several old people playing chess in the plaza. They’re so happy to recognize her and she sits with them, saying: “Let’s play” in Russian.