I used to write various movie reviews. I put that on the back burner for four years because Donald Trump happened. With Trump (I hope) safely neutered, let me return to a more traditional space: occasional art critic. I’ve got a Netflix limited series that you should definitely watch: The Queen’s Gambit.
Certain stories will infect you, in a good way. They have just the right combination of plot, characters, twists and turns. These stories elevate times and people. The movie Selma comes immediately to mind. For us White Americans in particular, it took us into a time and place and inside the minds of Black Americans struggling under oppression that we needed to see and, more importantly, feel.
The Queen’s Gambit, a Netflix exclusive, is a limited series that opens up and elevates its characters in a good way. As an infectious story, it will grab you from the opening minutes. Thanks to a compelling script, excellent directing and an amazing casting, it takes you through a profoundly intimate experience.
It’s probably true that I identified with it because I played chess as a kid. But chess is merely a frame for the fascinating character of Beth Harmon: an orphan, child chess prodigy and substance abuser. It’s really about her intense and overwhelming struggle to put order into and elevate her deeply dysfunctional life. It’s these latter aspects that make it memorable and infectious, not the chess.
In putting her life together under these improbable circumstances, she rises like as phoenix from the ashes. Like Frodo who has to go to Mount Doom to destroy the one ring that is destroying him, Beth Harmon has the unenviable tasks of rising above the mess that life has thrown her. It includes a mother who kills herself, a weird and repressive orphanage she ends up in, racism, hard knocks and her unexpected interest in chess.
It’s hard to overstate how well Anya Taylor-Joy brings to life Beth Harmon. She is brilliant and believable, but so were the actresses who play younger versions of her. What may be unbelievable to some is the idea of a female chess champion. Chess is not considered to be something that women pursue seriously, who are perceived as not very left-brained by nature. Yet there are quite a few women grandmasters out there, just mostly unknown outside of Russia or China. In Beth’s case, a gruff janitor playing by himself in the basement of the orphanage becomes her unlikely gateway into this world. When Beth’s brilliance is finally realized, she easily wins a state championship that she enters as a complete unknown.
Beth gets adopted as a teenager, but her adopted father is an absentee father who abandons her mother, which leaves her adopted mother popping pills. Beth is familiar with pills too, because all the children in the orphanage get them, mostly to keep them pliable. Beth becomes addicted to them, and she thinks the pills are what makes it possible for her to succeed in chess. She thinks it gives her the edge, particularly against some of the best chess players, to win her games.
Despite her seemingly insurmountable problems, it turns out that help can be found in unlikely places. Her adopted mother may be strung out on pills herself, but there is a kind heart beneath her that rises to the occasion of having a new daughter in her life. And in a chess world full of nerds there are enough people to who can see the deeper woman to rise to support her, even while many of them lust for carnal knowledge of her.
In short, the supporting characters too rise above mere supporting roles too and become complex and fleshed out characters in their own right. There’s not one poorly cast character among them and they all bring just the right touch and complexity to their roles. The world of the 1960s is meticulously rendered for the screen. Aside from the stellar direction, the cinematography is amazing in its own right. The series has a real film noir feel to it, with chess matches in foreign places like Paris, Moscow and Mexico City adding complexity, intrigue and many memorable characters. These include Vasily Borgov, a Russian grandmaster and the world’s highest-ranking player, as well as Beth’s biggest challenge. It all gets perfectly resolved in the final seventh episode. It should leave you, like me, in tears at the end.
It’s just amazing. Go watch it.