- Mary Hepp
The Queen’s Gambit (2020): This Slick Period Drama Excels in Every Category
Warning: Mild Spoilers Ahead!
Netflix’s latest original series, The Queen’s Gambit, is a novel-based period piece that tackles the international world of professional chess, explored through the lens of young Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy,) who is on a rocky coming-of-age journey of her own.
Anya Taylor-Joy, known for her roles in The Witch (2015), Split (2016), and Emma (2020), brings a riveting, captivating performance to the miniseries, dominating the frame every second she’s on screen. Her magnetic on-screen presence is emphasized through the dynamic, immersive cinematography, and sleek editing. Joining her is a supporting cast that bring their own allure to the series, each crafting their own distinct screen dynamic to Joy’s Beth Harmon, most notably Marielle Heller as Beth’s adoptive mother, Alma Wheatley, whose honest portrayal results in a mother-daughter dynamic rarely seen in media portraying the 1960’s Cold War era. Against the backdrop of a rich set design and detailed costuming, the period piece truly comes to life throughout its seven-episode run.
The Queen’s Gambit opens with Beth moving to live in an orphanage following a family tragedy. There she meets several characters, including her friend Jolene, and Mr. Shaibel, the gruff yet kind custodian who introduces Beth to the world of chess. Beth becomes fixated by the art of chess, and begins to use stimulants to enhance her perception of the art. After years of studying and playing with Mr. Shaibel, she is adopted by Alma Wheatley and her husband (Patrick Kennedy). They whisk her away to suburbia, where she encounters the world of public high school, and soon confidently enters her first official chess tournament, much to her fellow male participants' disapproval. When she proves her talent, she soon embarks on a centralized journey of studying the game and entering countless tournaments, which she all wins with ease. She meets fellow contestants, such as Harry Beltik (Harry Melling) and Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster,) and realizes possibilities that the world of international chess has to offer her. However, she struggles with substance abuse and numerous tragic obstacles that her journey throws at her. In addition, she must face her greatest foe, the soviet player Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski) in order to prove herself and solidify her stance as a Grandmaster.
This was not the first attempt to bring the novel to live action, as this project was originally meant to be a feature film, directed and starring Heath Ledger alongside Ellen Page. Ledger modified the adaptation script to be a more intimate, honest portrayal of the protagonist, whose addiction issues mirrored his own. The project, which would have been Ledger’s directorial debut, never saw the light of day, as it was sadly cancelled in 2008.
Taylor-Joy’s performance in the miniseries stays true to portraying Beth in a sympathetic, human light. She’s not a cardboard cutout designed to draw pity or scorn from the viewer, but is a fully fleshed-out character who struggles to balance her talent for chess, dealing with her traumatic upbringing, and subsequent alcoholism. The meticulous editing helps the viewer to experience the wonder and exhilaration that Beth feels with each move of a chess piece, and the anxiety when the clock starts ticking. Beth Harmon is a great exemplification of how a girl with ambition was treated in the 60’s, as she often has to put up with disapproving, mocking male peers. However, the series doesn't focus too much on misogyny, as most of it takes the form of a disapproving look, or from mere silence. The familial dynamics of the time are reflected in the conflict between the Wheatleys, and Alma’s role as a housewife. Alma and Beth are a true dynamic duo, not always in agreement, but on each other’s side. Other notable performances include Moses Ingram as Jolene, Beth’s closest and oldest friend, who balances out Beth’s introversion and always knows the right thing to say. Thomas Brodie-Sangster humanizes and adds a swagger to his character, the lovable jerk Benny who goes from competitor to teacher.
The Queen’s Gambit takes no pause in showing off its masterful, expensive set design, bringing to life numerous colorful locations, fashion, and architecture reflective of the time. Immersive camerawork allows the viewer to really digest these rich details and exist in these spaces as Beth does, and the seamless editing gives the storyline a polish that connects the events through time. This is not your typical period piece, but rather a chaotically-paced narrative that tells the coming-of-age story of a young woman as she strives to become a chess Grandmaster.