Scott Frank, the Oscar-nominated writer of Out of Sight, Minority Report and Logan brings a new 7-part mini-series to Netflix – The Queen’s Gambit. It is based on the novel by Walter Tevis, who also wrote The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Hustler and its sequel – The Color of Money. Set mostly in the 1960s, it follows a fictional chess prodigy who is unusual for several reasons – she is an American woman in her late teens/early 20s and is from a humble background (she grows up in an orphanage and is taught how to play chess by the janitor). Anya Taylor-Joy plays Bath Harmon and the cast also includes Harry Melling, Thomas Brodie-Sangster and the great director – Marielle Heller.
While a little slow to get off the mark, The Queen’s Gambit is certainly worth sticking with. The first episode is obviously important in laying the groundwork in getting to know our protagonist. Isla Johnston plays young Beth, whose mother (Chloe Pirrie) deliberately crashes her car with Beth in the backseat. Beth is taken to an orphanage, where she is immediately drugged up – “green (pills) to even your disposition” and meets Jolene (Moses Ingram), who will become her only friend. That is, apart from Mr Shaibel, the janitor and Beth will take every chance to sneak into the basement to play chess with him.
At the start of Episode 2, Beth has transformed into the – ahem – fifteen year old Anya Taylor Joy, masquerading as thirteen so she can be adopted by Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller) and Allston Wheatley (Patrick Kennedy). The biggest revelation of The Queen’s Gambit is that one of the best directors of the last 5 years – of Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015), Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018), Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) and What the Constitution Means to Me (2020) – is also an incredible actress. Heller’s performance of the frustrated suburban housewife, who is gradually revealed to be depressed and alcoholic – is possibly the best in the series. It quickly becomes clear that all is not alright behind the white picket fence, Mr Wheatley is mostly away on business and money is tight. Beth enters a local chess tournament, where she meets twins Mike (Russell Dennis Lewis) and Matt (Matthew Dennis Lewis), Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) and Harry Beltik (Harry Melling, making quite a name for himself playing characters from the Southern States of the USA recently), all of whom will play a part in her ambitions to become US and then World Champion.
The following episodes follow Beth on a whirlwind tour that includes Las Vegas, Mexico City, New York, Paris and finally – Moscow. This being the 1960s, the costumes (by Gabriele Binder) and production design (by Uli Hanisch) are huge factors in making this an experience you want to soak up fully. Uli Hanisch is the production designer on the gorgeous Babylon Berlin and The Queen’s Gambit was actually shot in Berlin to accommodate him. While the hotels in the various cities that Beth travels to in order to compete in chess tournaments are gorgeously designed, the suburban home in Kentucky that Beth eventually inherits is probably the best set, in terms of character detail and how it changes.
Beth’s hair, make-up, shoes and clothes all go through an arc as well, from her awkward clueless teenage years, to the much more glamorous outfits towards the end. Beth’s relationship with the ‘bad boy of chess’ – Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) is another delight. For those of us who still primarily know Brodie-Sangster as the kid from Love Actually and Nanny McPhee, seeing him styled as some kind of mustachioed leather cowboy is truly hilarious. As a very young woman in a field entirely dominated by men, Beth obviously is underestimated and patronised at every turn. There is something very sweet about the way the boys she gradually befriends rally around her, as she earns their respect.
Taylor-Joy, who has proved her acting prowess in The Witch, Thoroughbreds, Marrowbone, The Miniaturist, Peaky Blinders and Emma carries the series with her central performance as Beth, who struggles with her own addictions and her obsessive relationship with chess. She uses her unusually large and cat-like eyes to great effect, especially when attempting to intimidate an opponent. When she goes off the rails, both Harry and Jolene come into her life at just the right moment to shake her out of it. Because there are so many characters, each relationship feels a little underdeveloped. It’s never clear why Beth seems so attached to Townes, for example. The supporting characters flit in and out of Beth’s life but chess is her constant companion – the thing she must conquer and prove that she can best the other players and the game itself.
If you’re feeling trepidatious about embarking on a seven hour show about chess, the dynamic directorial choices make the chess tournaments seem like any of the high-stakes scenes full of drama and tension in the best sports movies. The best one takes place in Ohio, of all places and uses split-screen montage (in the cool 60s style of The Thomas Crown Affair) and is set to Classical Gas by Mason Williams. A thread that continues throughout the series is that Beth takes her ‘green pills’ then plays chess games in her bedroom at night, projecting the board and pieces onto the ceiling with her mind’s eye. The other important factor in adding propulsion and dynamism to the chess scenes is the fantastic score by Carlos Rafael Rivera.
The Queen’s Gambit will certainly fill the Mad Men-shaped hole in your life, even if only briefly. The production design, costume design and score would be enough for me to recommend the show, even if the acting and directing weren’t also equally good. While the writing has some pacing issues and perhaps could have lost a character or two, in order to more fully develop relationships, the direction is interesting and exciting. Taylor-Joy (along with Elle Fanning) is one of the most accomplished and compelling young actresses working today and it is hoped that she will continue to make good choices of role. It is also an absolute joy to discover that Marielle Heller is such a talent that she’s as good at acting as directing. The Queen’s Gambit is well worth a Netflix binge.
The Queen’s Gambit is available on Netflix from October 23 2020.