Review: The Queen’s Gambit (2020)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #805

Number of views: One
Release Date: October 23, 2020
Genre: Drama
Country of Origin: United States
Episode Time: 46–67 minutes
Creators: Allan Scott, Scott Frank
Based on The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis
Producers: Marcus Loges, Mick Aniceto
Cinematography: Steven Meizler
Score: Carlos Rafael Rivera
Editing: Michelle Tesoro
Studios: Flitcraft Ltd, Wonderful Films
Distributor: Netflix
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Marielle Heller, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Harry Melling, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, Isla Johnston, Bill Camp, Moses Ingram, Marcin Dorociński, Patrick Kennedy, Chloe Pirrie, Christiane Seidel, Rebecca Root, Chloe Pirrie, Akemnji Ndifornyen

Suggested Audio Sicilian ♙

[1] Mason Williams “Classical Gas”

[2] Herman’s Hermits “End of The World”

[3] Carlos Rafael Rivera “The Queens Gambit”

It was always going to take something truly special to drag me out of retirement. Over three years have passed since I wrote my last appraisal and, not once in that time, have I felt compelled to pick up the quill and play foot soldier, as I do this very day. You see, special doesn’t even begin to elucidate just how monumental a work the one I’m about to share is. Indeed, not since Alan Ball’s life altering Six Feet Under has a series resonated on such an intimate level, or placed me quite so decisively in check.

I was eight-years-old when I first joined the school chess club. Every Thursday lunchtime, I took to the battlefield and pit my wits against other young upstarts, looking to earn myself that all-important victory. Back then, I had no idea that the number of possible unique configurations to a game of chess outnumbered the number of electrons in the entire universe. That the longest ever tournament face-off recorded in terms of moves took over twenty hours to complete, and even then, resulted in stalemate. That the Russians had an almost Spartan approach to introducing their young to competitive combat. And I most certainly was not aware it would prove to be a metaphor for life, in so many ways. However, I was in absolutely no doubt it had me, like a pawn in a power play. The King was dead. Long live The King. ♔

Alas, my passion for chess waned around the time pubic hair made an unsightly appearance and, aside from the occasional game for grins, have barely shook a rook in anger since. At least that is, until The Queen’s Gambit popped up on my Netflix radar, all wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. This seven-part limited series, lovingly crafted by Scott Frank and Allan Scott, is based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, and continues the fine run of form the streaming service have been on of late with regards to exclusive content. Set in the Cold War era, it tells the tantalizing tale of Beth Harmon, a child prodigy who learns her trade in an orphanage, and refuses to resign when the outside world commences spinning at her feet. The ultimate goal is to become a prestigious Grandmaster and beat the best to be the best. As with all great challenges, it’s the journey time which truly trades the fluids.

We begin with the aftermath of a serious road accident, which robs poor eight-year-old Beth (Isla Johnston) of her mother. Before she is able to process the magnitude of her loss, Beth is whisked away to the Methuen Home for Girls, and placed into care. Far from the hellhole we envisage, there is also precious little for a precocious mind such as hers to occupy itself. Befriended by older “lifer” Jolene (Moses Ingram), she soon learns the ropes and, more critically, the medication regime. Uppers and downers appears to be the theme, with the blue capsules some way less profound than the green. Moreover, should the latter be necked at around lights out, then tranquility is not the only property it proposes.

You see, Beth is endowed with unique powers, the likes of which would perhaps be identified as Asperger’s Syndrome; had it been half a century later. She processes information differently from her peers. Indeed, the menial tasks a child of her age is presented in such an environment, nary even graze the grey matter here. Under the mildly psychotropic effects of said power pill, her imagination is afforded the air miles to soar. That being said, the destination she has in mind is more of the close-quarters variety. A chess board, to be precise.

After happening across solemn but kindly custodian Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) in the basement, Beth takes an uncannily innate interest in the chessboard he scrutinizes daily. On a repeat visit, he offers to teach the bright young thing the beautiful game, and her obsession is instantaneously cemented. Alas, there is only so much one of such tender years can be taught, before student becomes master, and it is soon no longer a case of whether he will lose, more how devastated his rearguard will be, come time for the board rubber dust to settle.

Perch an eight-year-old before a Steinway piano, and chances are, you’ll have yourself a grand symphony by the time adolescence looms. And there happen to be eighty-eight keys on a piano, a great deal more than the sixty-four squares of a chessboard. Ergo, Beth becomes an unstoppable force of nature in no time. The board itself represents something of a safe place to Harmon, as her teenage self goes on to explain further down the road. Within its confines, she is the Queen. The dominant piece with most telling movement, in absolute control of her destiny. The pattern of play is her own, albeit nominally challenged by her opponent’s pre-fated passage from opening gambit to inevitable resignation.

Evidently outgrowing her environment at the same rate she pops those green pills, Beth is eventually thrown a bone. Adopted by the Wheatleys, Alma (Marielle Heller) and her wantaway spouse Allston (Patrick Kennedy), she is provided the kind of family life snatched away when the reaper claimed her biological mother. While “pops” is to prove little more than a pawn in the game going forward, it’s her relationship with her new mother that supplies cover to her King. In many ways, Mr. Shaibel has been the father figure she never had, having wired her young mind to the ebb and flow of competitive chess. His work here is therefore done. Whereas, her female guardian possesses the kind of protective wing every child dreams about.

It also helps that the elusive green pills later deemed as contraband at the orphanage tally with those on Alma’s script and personal stash. Beth’s dependency on the meds isn’t over elucidated here, as she has far bigger fish to fry than the kippers of a smoked psyche. Tournament play beckons and the likes of Kentucky State champion Harry Beltik (Harry Melling) haven’t the vaguest inkling of the annihilation coming to them. From the moment that clock starts, it’s high octane carnage all the way, resulting in only one conceivable outcome. Boys meet girl. Girl beats boys. Dollar signs flash. Yet, it is far more than the cash that makes the noise. Beth Harmon has both hare eyes on the formidable Russian threat to worldwide bragging rights. Global domination reaps its own vast riches, for one so married to the game.

I wish to conclude synopsis here, instead honing in on just what makes The Queen’s Gambit so compulsive. And if ever a clue has been in the title, then Anya Taylor-Joy is it. As teenage Beth, she is an absolute treasure to pore over. With a pair of iridescent peepers that can express pages in a simple glance, she captivates every available sense, affording storytelling as deep as we are privileged to dive. In the same conclusive manner as Shira Haas demonstrated for another dazzling recent Netflix exclusive, Unorthodox, not a soul on the green earth beneath us could have played this part to greater perfection. The Witch, Split, Glass, Thoroughbreds, Emma, Peaky Blinders – just a handful of reasons why Ms. Taylor-Joy may well already be familiar with you. The Queen’s Gambit seems a most fitting mantle for a Monarch at the very height of her prowess.

This is where her turn is so extraordinary. You see, Beth is, for the most part, fiercely guarded with her emotions. The actions of those she comes into contact with on the circuit are too often a source of immense disappointment to her, and her stand-offish demeanor could so easily have made her a tough Queen to adulate. Not so. The eyes are windows to the soul, after all. And seldom has a view been so exquisite as it is here.

While a potent mix of alcohol and drugs could be construed as clouding her judgement, she actually plays better under the influence as she earns her stripes, ahead of the all-important showdown with the seemingly unflappable World Champion, Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorociński). Therefore, while it appears Beth is trapped within herself, this is very much a conscious decision on her part. She simply knows her safe place. And having had her entire world turned on its head at such an early age, heaven knows she needs one. Taylor-Joy is pitch perfect, as is Johnston as her younger self.

Indeed, the entire cast are uniformly excellent. Heller excels as her adopted mother, and the connection the two share is beautifully understated. Alma is hopelessly lost in her own life, that is until Beth provides it meaning once again. A naturally gifted pianist, overwhelming stage fright has always held her back from realizing her own dreams. Yet, she can see so much of herself in the youngster, and it is joyous to see Alma living vicariously through her. Heller brings immense warmth to the role and her performance is no less remarkable, in its own way.

Then we have the boys. From early nemesis Baltik, to US Open rival Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and first true love Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), all play a fundamental role in the telling of Beth’s tale. As with chess, mirrored through life itself, there are no coincidences. These people have been placed in her court for a distinct reason, even though that may not appear clear to Beth at the time. The very same can be said for soul guardian Jolene, whose dedication to her beloved “cracker” is pivotal to Beth finding her identity, and steering her back on track when faltering. As for Mr. Shaibel, well their relationship is almost entirely unspoken. And no less moving as a result.

Meanwhile, the set and costume design are characters all of their own. Every shot is like a lost Michelangelo, Steven Meizler’s photography is as sharp as a Bishop’s miter, the writing top-notch and brave enough to subvert expectation at regular intervals, and the games themselves, incendiary. While speed is so often the order of the day, there are numerous heartbeats herein which feel like eternities. It is no mean feat making chess utterly mesmerizing to those who have absolutely no concept of the rules. The Queen’s Gambit may well have you dusting off your own boards and there can be no greater testament to its quality than that.

Much has been made of the addiction side of things, and it unquestionably plays a fundamental role in the story arc. That being said, it is never the be all and end all. Beth Harmon is far too complex a character, written with multiple layers, and played with a few more facets besides, to be pigeon-holed in such a way. This is the kind of human story that will resonate with a great many, I’m assured. At seven-episodes long, it is as short and concise as one of Harmon’s first round robin encounters. Howbeit, its overarching sermon should remain with you, long after the end credits have rolled.

The Queen’s Gambit achieves the impossible, and even to a self-esteemed dreamer such as myself, highly improbable. Six Feet Under has always been the Grandmaster to me. No other series could ever dream of setting me at perpetual ease with mortality, that ship sailed many moons back now. What it does, and with the ease of a nine-year-old chess prodigy whose view of the spectrum is as far-reaching as it is intimate and huddled, is remind the child inside us one and all, to find our own unique end game. давай играть. ♕

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10

Read The Witch Appraisal

Read Split Appraisal

Read Six Feet Under Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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