You don’t have to care, like, or even understand chess to be fascinated by it and to admire those who have mastered it. There are only two chess-related movies that I have thoroughly enjoyed: Pawn Sacrifice (2014) and Searching For Bobby Fischer (1993). They are both based on real-life characters.
There is also an excellent book that I love; The Eight (1988), a beautifully written novel by Katherine Neville, about the quest to track down a chess-set that belonged to King Charlemagne — it remains one of my all-time favorite works of historical fiction.
And it is safe to say that I can now include The Queen’s Gambit as a new personal all-time favorite when it comes to chess-related works of historical fiction.
The Queen’s Gambit is based on the 1983 Walter Tevis novel by the same name. I have never read any of his books, but I’ve been searching for a mass market paperback copy of The Steps of the Sun by Walter Tevis for a while now. Original editions of Tevis’s books have become very popular and expensive as of late — even used and somewhat worn down paperback copies are selling at higher prices than average. But I’m not complaining; I’m glad they are in high demand — Still, I’m planning to hold off until prices come down a bit.
This Netflix 7 episode series is about a Kentucky orphan on a quest to become the world’s greatest chess player. We follow Beth (Anya Taylor-joy) from the moment her mother kills herself by driving straight into oncoming traffic with young Beth in the backseat. She is placed in an all-girls 1950s orphanage where the children are given a daily diet of tranquilizers until Beth develops a pill addiction, which she carries into adulthood.
She meets the school janitor Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), who teaches her chess and becomes an early mentor and father figure. Bill Camp is always great in everything he does, and he is great here also. Beth Eventually gets adopted by a childless couple, and her journey into chess competitions begins soon after.
There is an extremely high level of quality to the production of this show. The set designs, costumes are all well put together. The chess competitions and chess matches are smartly portrayed. The tension is palpable in just about every chess match. The speed-chess scenes were remarkable. There is engaging and precise world-building that will make you want to become part of the world that these characters inhabit. However, this show is much more than only chess competitions and the mental stress of chess. It is about addiction, childhood trauma, feminism, and communism. Plus, it tackles mental health issues and the thin line between genius and madness.
The relationship between Beth and her adopted mother, Alma (Marielle Heller), is crucial to the plot. Alma’s self-discovery journey late in life after her husband leaves her is parallel to Beth’s journey. Marielle Heller is outstanding here playing this functioning alcoholic, coping with 1950s housewife life, while at the same time abusing alcohol and cigarettes.
The casting of all the supporting characters is on point here. The young Russian chess prodigy is a scene-stealer played by Louis George Ashbourne Serkis (Andy Serkis’ son). Young Beth (Isla Johnston) is just about identical to older Beth — easily could be the same person. Jolene (Moses Ingram) is solid as a fellow orphan and Beth’s closest friend. The two chess-head brothers who travel from tournament to tournament are hilarious. Even all of the cold war era Russian chess champions that Beth plays against are well cast.
Harry Beltik (Harry Melling) is praiseworthy as Beth’s first tough tournament competitor and eventual friend/lover. Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) is exceptional as this weird and eccentric US chess champion; he competes against Beth and later befriends her. Her platonic relationship with former chess competitor turned photojournalist Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) is another critical component of Beth’s personality and psychology. There is plenty of symbolism in the type of relationships she has with all the men in her life.
Anya Taylor-Joy is unbelievably good here, in a captivating and soulful performance. This is a complex character with deep psychological issues. Beth has an amazing mind, but alcohol and pills fuel her strategic vision for chess. Her psychological dependence on pills and alcohol are an intricate part of her process of finding focus and finding clarity when envisioning chess techniques and strategies. But at the same time, they are also threatening to become her undoing. Beth can be sweet, charming, and messed up all at once, and Anya Taylor-Joy captures all the complexities of this character beautifully.
The Queen’s Gambit gets better and better with every single episode. The writing, acting, and directing are brilliantly brought together. I felt like it could have been two episodes longer. Nevertheless, Netflix has once again delivered another excellent limited series.
Five out of Five Popcorn Bags 🍿🍿🍿🍿🍿
The Queen’s Gambit (2020). Streaming on Netflix.