The Queen’s Gambit review: A winning game
"Chess is a challenging game to capture visually, but the visual language of The Queen’s Gambit bursts with the same maturity as its writing. The tone is subtle, and the drama, exciting"
How do you make chess interesting for the outsider? The sport (or game, depending on which side of the debate you are) often bears a misconstrued image of being ‘boring’, given that it is played in silence, devoid of evident excitement, with even spectators maintaining a stoic quiet. It is just two people, bent over a board of 64 squares staring intently at a bunch of oddly shaped pieces. Naturally, I was curious to see how The Queen’s Gambit has captured the abundant drama that chess embodies. And boy, does it get it right.
The show isn’t just about the chess prodigy in Elizabeth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy); it is as much about so much else too. Beth discovers her flair for chess by accident at the age of nine, when her janitor, who teaches her the rules, recognises her potential. But The Queen’s Gambit isn’t just about Beth’s journey to becoming a chess superstar. Scott Frank’s mini-series effectively intertwines this sports saga with a coming-of-age story that beautifully captures Beth’s transformation from a gawky kid to a magnetic woman who recognises the power of her aura.
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Harry Melling, Marielle Heller
Director: Scott Frank
The refreshingly nuanced writing brims with emotional intelligence, as it takes us through her dalliance with drugs and skewed relationships. Beth is magnificently complex as the kid forced to grow up. She is a bag of contradictions—where there is confidence, there is also confusion. It is a rarity that a young girl's agency is treated with such respect onscreen. An example of the impressive writing would be the equation between Beth and her adopted mother, Mrs. Alma Wheatley. More than a mother-daughter relationship, both women find companionship upon getting deserted by their respective worlds. The series could have easily reduced Alma as The Depressed WifeTM, and Beth as The Intelligent brat TM . Instead, it gives us two real, jaded women who have profound conversations about life and intellect, embracing each other’s flaws and supporting each other when they most need it.
Chess is a challenging game to capture visually, but the visual language of The Queen’s Gambit bursts with the same maturity as its writing. The tone is subtle, and the drama, exciting. The camera roves around the chess board, as the player’s eye would, before locking in on its target. The series uses several such shots and follows them with closeups and attempts to offer a visual interpretation of how a chess player operates. The series also recreates the era quite well with its art production. Despite throwing around chess terms (the episodes are named after them as well), the narrative doesn’t demand that you know the game. Understandably, it doesn’t delve deep into the games but uses other techniques to convey the tension to the layman. For instance, it neatly shifts in and out of an outsider commentating on the game—or in one scene, has Beth explaining the games to her mother. These are organically built into the narrative, and flow seamlessly. A terrific performance by Anya Taylor-Joy, who breathes life as Beth, in addition to the many other solid performances, add to the series’ appeal.
The story of every woman achiever will have a chapter on their battle against sexism, and a footnote on patriarchy. While films usually stroll through the ‘only woman in the team’ bridge and ‘mansplain’ the footwalk, The Queen’s Gambit touches more nuanced territory. After her first interview, Beth accurately observes that she is spoken of as ‘a celebrity for being a girl’. “It (the interview) is mostly about how I am a girl; it shouldn’t be so important. It doesn’t talk about how I play the Sicilian,” she says. When she plays in Russia, a commentator says, “the only thing unique about Beth Harmon is her gender.” Earlier, Beth is criticised for being ‘too glamorous for a chess player’. These observations dig deeper than the usual lipservice paid in the name of political correctness.
The only seeming flaw, in an otherwise terrific series, is that it can be too on-the-nose at a few places—especially with the flashbacks. But then, the depth of the writing washes over such contrivance. Like when Beth asks, “What will you do after, if you become world champion at 16?” to a talented young Russian, who she eventually beats. The beauty of this idea makes us forget the convenient flashback before this moment. A gambit, in chess, means to make a small sacrifice to acquire an advantageous position in the play and this ‘flaw’ can be thought of as the gambit here, in a sense.