The Queen’s Gambit Review: A compelling character driven narrative matched with a complex showcasing of chess
When this year started, before the COVID-19 Pandemic changed everything, I had written an article for In Their Own League about my most anticipated movies of the year and proclaimed that this was going to be THE year for actress Anya Taylor-Joy – which it certainly was. While New Mutants didn’t exactly pan out and her appearance in Edgar Wright’s in his new film Last Night in Soho is delayed indefinitely, her performance in Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma kicked off the year excellently for her. However, Taylor-Joy is garnering wide acclaim for her performance in the new Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit – where she plays a chess prodigy named Beth based on the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis.
Frankly, I had never seen a Netflix series gain acclaim, be raved about across social media, and have such an impact on viewers that there would be a resurgence in people’s interest in chess. With all the hype surrounding it, my love for playing chess, and wanting to see the performance that’s putting Taylor-Joy on the map, it was inevitable that I would eventually watch The Queen’s Gambit and when I initially did, I was a little underwhelmed. There had just been so much hype around the series leading up to watching that my expectations for an unbelievably thrilling and compelling story about chess from start to finish wasn’t initially met since the show provides a more slow-building and dull feel in the opening episodes. However, things pick up quick once it delves into the silent intensity of chess playing and the more character driven story of Beth’s childhood stardom that Taylor-Joy absolutely thrives in.
Following the story of Beth Harmon (Taylor-Joy), a young orphan turned chess prodigy that struggles to deal with her sudden childhood stardom as her obsession to be the best rapidly grows, The Queen’s Gambit offers an incredibly strong character-driven narrative filled with competitive intensity like no other. I know it’s hard to believe that a game like chess can be thrilling to watch but this series showcases the game in purely thrilling fashion. Some say that silence is deafening, but here, silence is tense as hell. All of the mind games can be felt, each piece moving leaves you curious as to where things are going, and the games are given a lot of great atmosphere with the crowds they create this anxious excitement that consumes the scene. It’s even better how these games become more intriguing as Beth faces new personalities, hones her game, and the nature of them becomes more complex.
The Queen’s Gambit really fleshes out the overall complexity of chess and offers sort of a guide through the intricacies of the game. Watching Beth learn the game of chess actually helps viewers understand the game better as well. She initially learns the basics of what the pieces the do, basic special moves like castling and En passant, and the names of the squares as well as names of certain openings, but it eventually gets much more complex. The series genuinely chronicles someone mastering the game and learning the strategy and mindset it takes to be a grandmaster and it’s what makes it so enticing for viewers to watch. Even the way the game gets more complicated as Beth moves to bigger and better tournaments with how there are time and move limitations added that make it no just about beating your opponent, but doing it swiftly is great as it raises the stakes. The Queen’s Gambit genuinely showcases its love for the game of chess in a way that viewers will equally love and creates a strong narrative around it to add in more human emotion and personal struggle around each game.
Although she is labeled a prodigy pretty early on in her career, Beth certainly had no easy upbringing and is far from perfect. Developing a tranquilizer and alcohol dependency from her time as an orphan that she especially depends on when playing chess, Beth has her own personal obstacles that makes it easy for viewers to emotionally attach themselves to. There’re plenty of moments of weakness that she has and inner demons that threaten her chances at greatness that make for an incredibly compelling story of child stardom and being a perfectionist. However, it’s not really the bad qualities that make Beth’s story so emotional and compelling, but rather the sense of respect you develop for her love of the game. Beth’s inquisitiveness about chess, her desires to be the best, and her genuine respect for good gameplay makes her a character that’s hard not to love and one that you genuinely want to see her win. She’s never a bad sport or even cares about the fame, fancy write-ups in chess magazines and news stories, and doesn’t even care to be the female empowerment figure that many around her boast her as. Rather, she just wants to be the best and achieve her own status making her a figure that, sort of ironically, can be very empowering, especially for women, and relatable for many viewers.
Taylor-Joy adds even more intrigue to Beth’s fight for first place with a very methodical and subdued performance. Beth isn’t a big talker, so Taylor-Joy is forced to bring more physicality to her performance and utilize body language to get us inside Beth’s head – which she does tremendously. Not only does she provides a wide range of emotions for Beth that viewers will feel and make her drive to win less callous and cold and more personally triumphant, but she also makes Beth’s driving curiosity of the game incredibly palpable and hard to resist. Also, she carries a damn good screen presence here and makes Beth’s fear of no one totally believable as she never seems intimidated by anyone she faces – regardless of how doubtful people are of her. This is definitely Taylor-Joy’s strongest performance yet, in a career full of them, and hopefully will earn her the awards acclaim she deserves. It’s also worth giving some recognition to Marielle Heller, the excellent director of Can You Ever Forgive Me? and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, as Beth’s adoptive mom Alma. Her performance truly embodies the idea of 50s nuclear families and the role women played in them and eventually broke out of. It’s a performance that carries the same kind of personal struggle as Taylor-Joy’s and the chemistry that grows between them is surprising and even a little heartwarming.
Believe the hype about The Queen’s Gambit as it delivers an emotional, methodical, and deep narrative about child stardom and overcoming personal and social barriers while also doing the seemingly impossible – making chess legitimately thrilling and tense as hell. It’s easily one of the best watches of the year and the definitive reason why, despite all of the crap 2020 has brought, it’s been a great year for showing why Taylor-Joy is a rising performer.