Headed by a stellar performance from Anya Taylor-Joy, The Queen’s Gambit grips you with it’s 60’s aesthetic and engaging plot. It’s a Netflix pick that’s the right move for anyone.
We meet Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) sodden, from awakening in a bathtub and impatiently summoned down to face her opponent in a European Championship chess match. Startled, she topples over, swallows down some pills with liquor and rushes down the hallway of the elegant hotel. Entering a room full of men, she parades down to face her opponent, the Soviet world champion.
The Queen’s Gambit, a Netflix original released on the 23rd of October, follows a remarkable young prodigy as she navigates the male-dominated world of chess, her own personal demons, and her isolated life. Based on Walter Tevis’ novel of the same name, The Queen’s Gambit is not a biographical tale, but it’s story is nonetheless important. Outwardly, a TV show about chess does not seem exceptionally gripping to those unfamiliar with the game. However, with Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth at the helm, the series is anything but boring. Taylor-Joy plays a character that mostly lives in her own head, detached from the world, and does so with exceptional talent. She has the face of a cunning fox; her expressive eyes make her a ruthless redhead you would not want to be up against.
Beth Harmon is orphaned at 8 years old. She is placed in a state home that hand out mandatory vitamins and tranquillisers to children, a substance she becomes dependant on. Trying to find an escape from her lonely methodical days, she starts to play chess with the school janitor who realises that she is extraordinarily gifted. Adopted at 15 years old, she finally has her chance to play chess competitively, and one year later, at 16 years old, she plays at the US open championships. However, the more success she achieves, the deeper into isolation and addiction she sinks. Beth has a one-track mind, chess is her everything. She walks around with an air of confidence that tipples on the edge of arrogance. She is obsessed with winning, spirals when she loses, and is her own worst opponent.
This story is a character-driven narrative, more so than it is about chess. We see Beth tackle her addiction to pills, the thrill of the game, and her obsession to win against all odds. The chess games are played out grippingly, and the series’ cinematography perfectly fits the style of the decade. The camerawork and editing style, especially during the chess matches are reminiscent of a 50’s game show, with the action played out in split screens. Each episode varies in length, enabling the story to be told with the time needed, with no unnecessary filler. The seven episodes are unquestionably binge-worthy, as we see the trials and tribulations of Beth’s character on her journey to championing the chess world.
Chess is known as a gentleman’s game. A game of tactics, war, and logic – and Beth beats them at their own game. However, it is refreshing to see that all the relationships she develops from playing are true and genuine, having always been alone and never feeling a sense of belonging. She detaches herself from the world. Nevertheless, those around her want to support her, despite her continuously rejecting their concern. At the end of the series, Beth learns that she doesn’t require a cloudy, tranquillised mind in order to play with an edge; she doesn’t need to always self-sabotage. What she requires is self-belief and to accept help from those that care for her. Only then does she have what she needs to defeat the reigning champion.
Another captivating element of The Queen’s Gambit is the way it captures 1960’s America. The costume, the set, the music, the aesthetics and the visuals invite you into the world. One of the memorable moments of the series is the visual effects of the imaginary chessboard on Beth’s ceiling; as a child, she takes the tranquilliser pills to visualise the game as she has no one to practice with. In the final showdown in Russia, Beth is able to envision the game with a clear mind on the ceiling of the majestic competition hall. The chessboard looms above her, as she calculates her win. The sequence of large chess pieces playing out, paired with a rousing musical score, makes you feel as though you were witnessing something epic.
The Queen’s Gambit is a gripping story that had me hooked from start to finish. Even if you are not acquainted with chess, this series will be impossible for you to stop watching.
Words by Ellen Kinsey