Julien Neaves, Editor
Ah chess, the game of kings. Or, for eight-year-old me, the game that you knock all the pieces off the board after you get checkmated. What? I hated losing. And you know who also hates losing at chess? Anna Taylor-Joy’s chess prodigy character Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon in the new Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit. Now that is a segue.
The miniseries, based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel of the same name, follows Harmon from a bleak orphanage in the mid-1950s to competing at the top the world chess game in the mid-1960s. Here is my spoiler-free review in four moves. Get it? Chess? Moves? You get it.
Move 1: The Players
The performances in this series are nothing short of exquisite. Taylor-Joy (Split, The Witch) is mesmerising as Beth, a socially-awkward, chess-obsessed, substance-abusing chess genius. With just her large, piercing eyes she is able to express a tirade or a tease, and every turn of her head or move of her hand is as calculated and price as a great chess play. Taylor-Joy disappeared into this role and I cried when she was at her lowest emotionally and cheered when she was kicking chess backside. I think she will definitely get some award buzz for this portrayal.
The rest of the cast are also at the top of their game as well. Get it? Game? I really can’t help myself. There is no weak link here in the acting department but I will highlight a few of my favourites: Bill Camp as the reticent custodian Mr Shaibel, Moses Ingram as foul-mouthed and sassy orphan Jolene, Marielle Heller as Beth’s adoptive mother Mrs Alma Wheatley, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Game of Thrones, The Maze Runner trilogy) as too-cool-for-school chess superstar Benny Watts.
Move 2: On the Board
When some people hear the word “chess” their brains automatically think:
But huge kudos to co-creator and director Scott Frank because the way the chess matches are shot and edited is edge-of-your-seat thrilling. Instead of having the camera linger too much on the board and the pieces it focuses on the player’s expressions like a Wild West duel. So even if you can’t tell chess from Ludo you can still follow along with what is happening and the tide of the match.
And because you are already invested in Beth you will find yourself cheering her on and sharing emotionally in both her victories and defeats. And as I am sharing out kudos, I will send some for cinematographer Steven Meizler as the scenes showing Beth visualising games were exquisite.
Move 3: Off the Board
The focus of the miniseries may be competitive chess but it is about so much more. As we follow Beth’s troubled but spectacular life we encounter a myriad of issues. Her birth mother had serious mental health problems and she worries if she might be “broken” as well. Her single-minded focus on chess borders on obsession and affects her social life. Being the lone woman in a male-dominated sport leads into themes of feminism. And through her addiction to pills and booze we deal with the deep dark pit that is substance abuse.
There is a whole lot of drama in this drama series, but it is never melodramatic and always makes sense for the characters. And there is a deeper meaning to all the craziness and a message about the importance of balance in life and that no man (nor woman in this case) is an island.
Move 4: Endgame
In the middle of binging this series I was thinking: “Man this show is good. I really hope they stick the landing.” And I am happy to report that they did. The final episode pulls things together well and delivers a very satisfying conclusion. What’s left to say other than I loved this show and I recommend it unreservedly. And oh yes, the 60s-era fashions were pretty cool and the 60s-soundtrack is a banger. Yeah, I think that’s it from me. But I will end with a quote from my wife after she binged The Queen’s Gambit: “I don’t even play chess, and I couldn’t wait for the next episode.” Now that is a ringing endorsement if I ever heard one.
Julien’s Score: 10 out of 10
For Sommer’s Top 3 Reasons to Watch Netflix’s Ratched (and Three Reasons to Skip It) you can click here.
Julien “Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”.
I can also be found posting on Instagram as redmanwriter. And for more about me you can check out my full bio here.
My wife said it best: “I don’t play chess and I couldn’t wait for the next episode.”