This review was originally published on my movie blog The Book, The Film, The T-Shirt.
The Queen’s Gambit follows the rise of orphan Beth Harmon, as she rises up the ranks of the world’s chess players while battling her own demons.
Who would have thought that one of the best TV shows of the year would be about chess? The Queen’s Gambit is based on the book of the same name by Walter Trevis. If you’ve never heard of him, he’s also the man behind The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Hustler and The Color of Money. So, maybe it was less of a gamble than it first appears.
Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy) finds herself in an orphanage after the death of her mother in a car accident. It’s the 50s, so the place is bleak and the children are given pills to make them easier to handle.
She finds solace in learning to play chess with custodian Mr Shaibel (Bill Camp). A natural prodigy, she catapults her way through the rankings until she’s playing the best in the world.
Her hopes of normal home life are dashed when she’s adopted by an unfulfilled alcoholic housewife Alma (Marielle Heller) and her absent husband. Though far from an ideal situation, Alma supports Beth in her dreams of being a chess player (once she finds out that it can be a lucrative pursuit. Soon the two are globe-trotting, pill-popping drinking companions, as Beth continues to destroy the competition.
The Queen’s Gambit manages to convey the complexity and excitement of chess, without having to make us watch too much of it. It’s less of a chess lesson and more of a performance piece. Though I’ll be amazed in sales of chess sets don’t skyrocket this Christmas, which can only be a good thing. It walks a perfect line between feelgood sports movie and coming of age drama. While it’s clear that the makers didn’t want to beat the ‘woman takes on men at their own game’ drum, she encounters virtually no sexism (intended or unintended), throughout the entire series. Almost unthinkable in that game during that time period.
The one slight criticism is that Beth’s own shortcomings don’t seem to hamper her career at all for most of the series. Her excessive drinking and pill-taking, which would leave most people unable to function as humans, don’t seem to stop her breezing through the opposition, collecting an admiring bunch of chess players in her wake.
Beautifully shot, with great performances across the board (Taylor-Joy in particular), The Queen’s Gambit will definitely win you over. Checkmate.