Written and Directed by Scott Frank (based on the novel by Walter Tevis)
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Bill Camp, Moses Ingram, Marielle Heller, Harry Melling, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Marcin Dorocinski
The Queen's Gambit is long form television at its best. Based on the novel by Walter Tevis* the limited series breezes by over seven episodes, each approximately an hour long. Anya Taylor-Joy is a revelation as chess prodigy Beth Harmon, an intriguing, fictionalized character traversing through the 1960s. Going along with Beth on her journey is a rewarding experience as she perseveres through a myriad of challenges. Like Beth, the plot stumbles at times, but always lands on its feet.
The analogies between Chess and the Cold War go back to the very beginning of the era. Whether it was Herman Kahn or Henry Kissinger writing bestselling tomes on nuclear diplomacy or more literally during the 1972 World Chess Championship matches between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spaasky. Early in the series I was concerned Beth would end up being a female version of Fischer, especially when a Life Magazine reporter quizzes her with questions about chess prodigies being destined to lose their minds. But the story steers away from that direction. The 2014 film Pawn Sacrifice deals with Fischer, which I've also reviewed on this site.
A recurring theme is the tension between solitary life and one of connection. Beth comes of age in an orphanage after losing her mom and discovers chess. The custodian (Bill Camp) appears foreboding at first, but sees Beth's gift and teaches her the game. Jolene, an African American resident at the orphanage, becomes Beth's best friend and plays a key role towards the end. Beth also becomes addicted to tranquilizers, which were apparently administered to orphans during this era, but the drugs seem to clear her mind for chess. After becoming a local sensation after defeating the local High School team, Beth does not return to chess until High School after she's adopted by a middle-aged couple from Kentucky.
Socially isolated at school, Beth joins the chess club and swiftly decimates all the local competition. In time Beth bonds with her adoptive Mom Alma (Heller) as they pool their resources and become travel companions. Beth takes the chess world by storm. Typically, the only female competing at tournaments, she navigates through the male dominated world and develops relationships along the way with socially awkward Henry (Beltik) and flamboyant U.S. champion Benny (Brodie-Sangster) (with a persona somewhere between Leonardo Di Caprio and D.J. Qualls.) Polish actor Marcin Dorocinski is also memorable as the Soviet champion "Borgov" who's mere presence says wonders in an almost silent performance, who, in the words of Beth, plays chess "like a bureaucrat." All these relationships evolve and payoff by the end.
As the 1960s swing into gear Beth moves along with the changes. Taking style points from a composite of iconic figures ranging from Ann Margaret, Edie Sedgwick, and Nico as she becomes a confident adult. Beth navigates through creative inertia, drinking binges, and eventually achieves a balance (with a little help from her friends.) While the story does build to conventional confrontation with her Soviet rival, every moment of it is earned.
Chess matches, not the most cinematic activity, are always suspenseful and fast paced. Steven Zaillian's underrated 1994 film Searching for Bobby Fisher about a child prodigy was an obvious influence. Yet chess remains in the background, the focus is always on the relationships. The set designs are memorable, a recreation of the 1960s bordering on fantastical. Musically the choices are never overbearing as many films covering this era can be, "Venus" by Shocking Blue is used memorably. Anchored by a charismatic lead performance by Anya Taylor-Joy, The Queen's Gambit is a masterclass of storytelling.
(Tony Macklin's review provides valuable background and insight on the writings of Walter Tevis),