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The Queen's Gambit
By Elyse Sommer
Still, the need for something fresh and different during the stressful, suspended reality of election week made me click on that image of a young girl in front of a chess board which reminded me of Rodin's "The Thinker." And so I clicked on The Queen's Gambit.
Surprise! Surprise! I was hooked. Though I still don't understand the fine points of how a chess game works, I watched game after game of each episode — riveted.
Chess players — especially any who have attended some of the tournaments that are very much part of what has made chess an international sport as well as an absorbing, mind-sharpening hobby — may be the most obvious target audience for The Queen's Gambiit. They'll know that the title of the 7-episode adaptation and the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis is refers to a chess move with which a player seeks to obtain control of the chess board. However, critical as chess was to the color and texture of that book by Tevis (he died in 1984), he was first and foremost a storyteller. He therefore used the game's potential to obsess and influence some players' journey through life as the driving character, plot building elements of an emotionally rich, compelling narrative with broad appeal. Tevis's choice of a female as his central character adds a feminist twist. That's because challenging as competing for top ranking on the tournament circuit is, Beth Harmon must do so in a male dominated world.
Women facing male players who dismiss them as not smart enough to master the game is hardly the only issue. Beth Harman's remarkable gift for chess takes her through ten years of triumphs, but also dealing with drug and alcohol problems.
With Anya Taylor-Joy playing Beth between ages 15 and 22, her performance alone will hook you in, as it did me. That picture of her that got me to click on the show wasn't just a teaser. The 24-year-old Taylor-Joy is as remarkable an actress as her character's chess game.
Mesmerizing as Taylor-Joy's performance is, the entire cast is stellar. But there's much more to relish. Scott Frank and Allan Scott have succeeded in making their adaptation of the source book an all-around winner.
Sure, it's a chess show with many of the most exciting scenes taking place with Beth and another chess wiz engaged in a tense game. But what draws in even chess illiterates like me is how well the contours of the chess landscape serve as the seedbed for an absorbing fictional bio-drama with an interesting, authentically and dynamically dramatized background.
Since the scenario includes Beth's surviving a car crash that kills her mother, and subsequent years in a Christian orphanage, we have Annabeth Kelly play the 5-year-old and Isla Johnston, portraying the young Beth who learns chess from orphanage custodian Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp).
Though the younger Beths appear chronologically we do first meet the main Beth immediatey in a flashback opening that has her about to play her most important tournament. That flashbck makes it clear that Beth has reached the pinnacle of her chess career but also succumbed to her problems with substance abuse.
That flashback establishes that Beth harvested her talent to become a chess star, and that she'll retain that stardom despite her problems dating back to the traumatic loss of her mother having gone into high gear. So, there's no nail-biting suspense about where her chess genius and the orphanage's practice of handing out tranquilizers will take Beth. Our edge-of-the-seat attention comes from seeing how it all unfolds.
Though The Queen's Gambit is very much a star turn for Taylor-Joy, the large supporting cast contributes mightily to making this such a pleasurable series to watch. As already noted, all are outstanding. You'll find a complete cast list in the production notes, but there are just a few who are especially critical to Beth's story.
First and foremost there's Bill Camp. He doesn't get to say much, but he makes Mr. Schaibel memorable. Isia Johnston as the young Beth who persuades the grumpy Schaibel to teach her the game, makes the transition to Taylor-Joy's Beth very believable.
A special round of applause too for Marielle Heller's Alma Wheatley. Beth's adoption by the Wheatleys, a prosperous but dysfunctional married couple, isn't exactly a happy ending to her orphanage years. But when Alston Wheatley abandons Alma, she and Beth do form a bond and Heller makes Alma as much a character undergoing enormous change as Beth.
My final special bravo is for a character who's missing for most of the middle episodes. That's Moses Ingram as Jolene, an African-American fellow orphan who reappears for the final ending. I won't spoil your watching pleasure, so all I'll tell you about her role is that she provides the sort of woke, happy ending we all look for these days.
Costume designer Gabriele Binder and production designer Uli Hanisch have done a terrific job capturing the look and feel of the 1960s. Their design work is not just authentic but serves to heighten our understanding of what's going on inside Beth's head.
A word of caution: The Queen's Gambit has some elements not suitable for children under sixteen. However, chess has proved to be a good educational experience. For details about this, check out the website of a non-profit organization called "Chess in the schools" at https://chessintheschools.org/
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The Queen's Gambit, 7-part mini-series
Created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott
Based on the 1983 novel The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis
Created by Scott Frank and Directed by Scott Frank
Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon,
Isla Johnston as young Beth
Annabeth Kelly as five-year-old Beth
Bill Camp as Mr. Shaibel, the custodian at the Methuen Home for Girls who taught Beth how to play chess
Moses Ingram as Jolene, a fellow orphan at the Methuen Home
Christiane Seidel as Helen Deardorff
Rebecca Root as Miss Lonsdale
Chloe Pirrie as Alice Harmon, Beth's deceased birth mother
Akemnji Ndifornyen as Mr. Fergusson
Marielle Heller as Mrs. Alma Wheatley, who with her husband Allston
adopted Beth as a young teenager
Harry Melling as Harry Beltik, a friend and one of Beth's competitors in Kentucky
Patrick Kennedy as Allston Wheatley, Alma's husband and Beth's estranged adoptive father
Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Townes, a fellow chess player for whom Beth develops an unrequited love
Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Benny Watts, a friend and one of Beth's major competitors
Marcin Dorocinski as Vasily Borgov, the Russian world champion chess player and Beth's fiercest competitor
Cotume Designer: Gabriele Binder
Hair and Makeup: Daniel Parker
Production Designer: Uli Hanisch
Music: Carlos Rafael Rivera
Cinematography: Steven Meizler
Editor: Michelle Tesoro
Running time each eousode: 46–47 minutes
Available to stream at Netflix
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on November 7, 2020