The Queen's Gambit review: Anya Taylor-Joy mesmerises in gripping study of genius marred by addiction

The Queen's Gambit traces a thriving subculture of nerds who eat, breathe, walk, talk and live chess. It's a nerd subculture worlds away from some of its modern variants, where misogynists band together in their shared sense of aggrieved entitlement.

Prahlad Srihari November 01, 2020 15:02:47 IST
The Queen's Gambit review: Anya Taylor-Joy mesmerises in gripping study of genius marred by addiction

The Queen's Gambit has all the pieces in place to make for a binge-worthy classic. It's got a near seamless story, dramatic stakes, slick camerawork, 1960s' vibrancy, and killer costumes. It’s even got a bit of arthouse cred, thanks to its star Anya Taylor-Joy. The source material for the Netflix miniseries is the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis. It’s a story which brings to mind that of Bobby Fischer. With genius comes misery. With success, obsession and with fame, alienation. Often, such stories get stuck in a stalemate, cycling through familiar beats of the highs and lows of a prodigy marred by addiction. The Queen's Gambit, however, does away with preachy insincerity for an emotionally rewarding portrait.

The show builds itself to a checkmate, despite a predictable opening move. A young woman climbs out of a bathtub, soaking wet and possibly hungover from a night of heavy drinking. She quickly races across her trashed hotel room, cleans herself up, puts on a dress, washes a few pills down with vodka, and runs downstairs. She opens the door to an explosion of flashbulbs. A whole host of photographers, reporters and spectators lie in wait for a decisive chess match with a man who seems her opposite in every way: steely, organised, bureaucratic and exaggeratedly Russian. As the two opponents sit face-to-face, a shot/counter-shot transitions into a flashback of how it all began.

The Queens Gambit review Anya TaylorJoy mesmerises in gripping study of genius marred by addiction

Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon

Young Beth Harmon was broken by life before she reassembled herself on the chess board. Only eight years of age when her mother was killed in a car crash, she is sent to an orphanage for girls. A lonely child by nature, she finds comfort in two things in her new Kentucky home: the green pills given to all the children to keep them docile, and the game of chess she discovers by accident in the basement, where the crabby caretaker Mr Shaibel (Bill Camp) plays alone by the light of a dim lamp. Beth feels an instant and intense enchantment to the chessboard and all its curious dynamics as if in a spell.

After persuading the reluctant Mr Shaibel to teach her, she soon proves herself to be a prodigy. Being a prodigy means nothing without proper grooming. So, Mr Shaibel teaches her everything he knows in daily contests in the basement. The lighting here plays a symbolic role: the shadow of past trauma vs the light of a hopeful future. Chess becomes an escape from her life at the orphanage, and eventually the ticket to a better life.

The Queens Gambit review Anya TaylorJoy mesmerises in gripping study of genius marred by addiction

Beth becomes addicted to alcohol and pills

Like a typical sports drama, The Queen's Gambit is a story of highs and lows, strengths and shortcomings, turmoil and tenacity. Chess is not just a contest on the board, but a contest within Beth's mind: between her insatiable appetite for winning and her compulsive urge for self-sabotage. A childhood, marked by grief, a fear of abandonment and a feeling of not belonging, has left her emotionally detached. Her inner conflicts externalise in self-destructive behaviours in adulthood, where drugs and alcohol become a refuge. 

Beth’s addiction to drugs begin in the orphanage. They help her concentrate as she imagines a chessboard on the ceiling to study a variety of openings, defences, and gambits. Her dependency on alcohol begins much later. As a teenager, she is adopted by a lonely housewife named Mrs Alma Wheatley. It is a relationship that blurs the line between mutual empowerment and exploitation. Beth sees her as a maternal figure who will support her, come what may. Abandoned by her husband, Mrs Wheatley discovers Beth's exploits could keep them fed and living in luxurious hotels. Only, she ends up enabling Beth's new addiction for alcohol. 

The Queens Gambit review Anya TaylorJoy mesmerises in gripping study of genius marred by addiction

Alma and Beth

Marielle Heller has to be the breakout star here. If The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood established her credentials as a director, The Queen's Gambit proves she is just as talented in front of the camera. Heller pulls back the facade of the happily busy '60s suburban woman of the post-WWII American Dream. She breathes so much life into Alma that the show becomes lesser in her absence.

Taylor-Joy's eyes become a window to Beth's very soul. They do most of the dramatic heavy lifting, like she's expressing inner monologues with her gaze alone. In close-ups as she stares down the barrel of the lens, you feel an overwhelming sense of empathy. Isla Johnston, who plays Beth as a child, maintains that same penetrating gaze, making the transition all the more effortless.

The Queens Gambit review Anya TaylorJoy mesmerises in gripping study of genius marred by addiction

Isla Johnston as young Beth

The set design and costumes are top-notch. Mrs. Wheatley's home in Lexington, Kentucky will make you want to redecorate your own home. Taylor-Joy makes quite a few statement-making entrances with her outfits, which perfectly merge into the locations. Along with Lexington, Mexico City, Paris and Moscow all get 60-year face lifts. The richly saturated colours, the layered patterns and retro-inspired details capture a hyper-stylised version of the 1960s down to the wallpaper.

A game where two people move pieces of wood for hours becomes a you-can't-take-your-eyes-off contest, proving chess can be as cinematic as boxing. You don't need to understand the game to enjoy these gripping contests of wits. Shots/counter shots of the players' faces, reaction shots of the kibitzers watching on, and the ticking of the chess clock will let you know exactly how the game is turning out. In dynamically edited sequences, she simultaneously defeats twelve young boys of a high-school chess club, and later a trio of grandmasters in game of speed chess. 

The Queen's Gambit traces a thriving subculture of nerds who eat, breathe, walk, talk and live chess. It's a nerd subculture worlds away from some of its modern variants, where misogynists band together in their shared sense of aggrieved entitlement. Despite being bested, many of her rivals turn allies, from Kentucky's best in Harry Beltik (Harry Melling) to the country's best in Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster). They form a great support system, knowing she could achieve something they couldn't. 

The Queens Gambit review Anya TaylorJoy mesmerises in gripping study of genius marred by addiction

Beth plays the Soviet grandmaster Borgov

Beth's rivalry with Borgov (that exaggeratedly Russian man from the prologue) is a contrast in playing styles: her intuition vs his calculation. It also reveals a contrast in cultural identities: American individualism vs Russian collectivism. The endgame is a predictable one. As you would expect, victory over Borgov will be the crown to her redemption arc. Taking a page out of the Soviet playbook, Harry and Benny take turns to train her. She slips on occasion, giving in to her vices many a time before she finally breaks the cycle of addiction. 

An issue worth pointing out has to be the treatment of Moses Ingram’s character. During her stay at the orphanage, Beth finds an unlikely ally and confidante in an older Black girl named Jolene. Despite her insistence that she's not Beth's guardian angel or saviour, Jolene however turns out to be exactly that. Playing by the rules of the age-old Magical Negro-White Salvation dynamic, she becomes the bad bishop whose agency is restricted by the show's own writers.

Almost every, and exclusively male, opponent Beth defeats bathe her in superlatives ("You're the best I've ever played", "You are a marvel, my dear"). But she is disheartened over being admired more for being the sole girl in a world of men, than for simply winning. As a magazine profile proves, they're not interested in her beginnings in the basement of an orphanage, or her aggressive tactics. It troubles her that they see her as a girl first and a chess player second. Because she isn't driven by a desire to prove to everyone that a woman can beat men in chess, she only wants to beat the emptiness she feels without the game. As she puts it, "It's an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it, I can dominate it. And it's predictable. So, if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame." 

The Queen's Gambit is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here —

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