Netflix’s ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is a Euphoric Blend of Chess and Addictions

The limited streaming series has changed the landscape of home television entertainment. These series are typically designed as one season standalones with a complete beginning, middle, and end. By developing the story over the course of 6 to 12 episodes, there is greater maturity of the details and characters. This is in contrast to a miniseries, which is usually 4-6 episodes.

Who would have thought that chess would make an interesting and compelling television series? On its surface, a limited series about chess sounds about as interesting as a series about growing grass. However, naysayers should be put on notice that The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix is “for real” entertainment. It has great acting, stellar directing, and amazing writing.

A NOVEL IDEA

Based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Walter Tevis, The Queen’s Gambit paints a dizzyingly fascinating story about a young female chess prodigy beginning in the 1950’s. Not only is the concept of a female chess player in champion contention a bit unorthodox for the time period, the story is made even more hypnotic by the young lady’s addictions to drugs and alcohol.

The story begins as eight-year-old Elizabeth Harmon becomes orphaned after her mother drives their car into oncoming traffic in a desperate act of suicide. Beth’s mother succeeds in her mission to end her own life, but Beth is miraculously unharmed.

With no relatives to take her in, Beth becomes a ward of the state. She is sent to live in the Methuen Home for Girls in Lexington, Kentucky. There, the children are given daily doses of tranquilizers to keep them docile. The pills strike a chord with Beth. She is enthralled at the way they fog her mind and numb her senses. Almost immediately, she is hooked – a child addict.

Bored with schoolwork and orphanage rules, young Beth stumbles upon the custodian playing chess in the basement. Fascinated by the patterns of the game, Beth badgers Mr. Shaibel into teaching her the game. She finds that her ability to visualize the game in her mind, makes her a natural. Oddly, she finds she is at her best in visualizing the game when her mind is spinning from the effects of the school-issued tranquilizers.

TEEN ANGST

As a teen, Beth is adopted by Alma and Allston Wheatley. However, shortly after bringing Beth into their home, the emotionally distant Allston departs on a business trip and never comes back. Taking life by the horns, Beth borrows money to enter a local chess tournament. Despite having never played organized chess, Beth easily wins the tournament – along with the impressive prize money.

Beth’s adopted mother Alma realizes there are huge financial rewards to be made if Beth can continue to win tournaments. They embark on a tour of the country, with Beth quickly becoming a media darling for her champion contender status in a world dominated by men. Meanwhile, Beth adds alcohol to her list of addictions.

Anya Taylor-Joy stars as the young adult Beth Harmon. She is captivating in the role. She has a unique and unconventional beauty. This outer beauty becomes more and more mesmerizing the further her inner self descends into the chaos of addiction.

STRONG ACTING

Taylor-Joy won a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Critic’s Choice Award, a Hollywood Critic’s Association TV Award, and a Golden Globe Award for her portrayal of Beth Harmon. Aiding her in creating the character are Annabeth Kelly as childhood Beth and Isla Johnston as teenage Beth. All three are wonderful actresses who blend well together as different ages of the same character. This is just one example of the excellent casting by Ellen Lewis. Lewis and her team won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Casting for a Limited or Anthology Series of Movie.

In the supporting cast, there are a number of standouts. Bill Camp puts on a gruff exterior, but also offers glimpses of a kind man in his strong portrayal of Mr. Shaibel. Also turning in fine performances as characters at the Methuen Home for Girls are Moses Ingram as Beth’s rebellious friend Jolene and Christiane Seidel as the director of the school, Helen Deardorff.

In the world outside the orphanage, Marielle Heller is excellent as Beth’s adoptive mother Alma Wheatley – herself suffering from depression and addictions. Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, and Harry Melling all turn in great performances as chess players Beth meets along her journey trying to capture a world championship. Marcin Dorocinski strikes a commanding figure as Soviet World Champion Vasily Borgov.

IN THE DIRECTOR’S CHAIR

As wonderful as the acting is across the board in The Queen’s Gambit, the actors’ jobs are made easy by the stunning scripting and directing – both at the hands of Scott Frank. The writer/director describes the story as an example of “the cost of genius.” A fitting assessment.

Frank received an Academy Award nomination for his writing of the 2017 film Logan starring Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart. It is widely regarded as one of the best superhero films of all time, dealing far more with story than special effects.

Frank previously received an Academy Award nomination for his adapted screenplay for the 1998 film Out of Sight starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. His work also includes Get Shorty, Minority Report, Marley & Me, and uncredited rewrites of Saving Private Ryan, Dawn of the Dead, and Entrapment.

The Queen’s Gambit won the Golden Globe for Best Limited Series, the Critic’s Choice Award for Best Limited Series, Writer’s Guild of America Award for Best Long Form Adapted Screenplay, and Director’s Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Movies for Television and Limited Series.

In addition, the limited series received high praise from the chess community for its accuracy in portraying the game and its players. The chess scenes were expertly choreographed. One can only imagine the rehearsals that went into the high-speed moves on the chess board.

The Queen’s Gambit is a seven-episode limited series that is currently available on Netflix. Even if you don’t know the first thing about chess, the story is enthralling.

Nor, does it appear, that the story is done being told. In 2021 the theatrical rights were optioned by Level Forward to develop the epic into a Broadway Musical.

Peace. Love. Trust.

Rikki Lee Travolta

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