“THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT” TURNS ON CHARACTER AND COMPETITION
A TV Review by Tim Riley
“THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT” ON NETFLIX A seven-episode Netflix series centered on the story of a gifted young female challenging the mid-20th Century male-dominated world of competitive chess may not initially sound like great entertainment but it would be a grave mistake to harbor that misconception. “The Queen’s Gambit,” the name for an opening chess move, is a story not only focused on the cerebral world of chess as a sport but also about obsession, addiction, and self-destructive behavior that threatens to undermine the brilliance of a child prodigy.
The opening setting is Paris 1967, with American chess whiz Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) roused from her hotel room from what may have been a drunken night of debauchery for a bout with one the best chess players in the world.The outcome of that match will have to play out at a later time, because the scene shifts back to Kentucky in the Fifties, when nine-year-old Beth (Isa Johnston) survives an automobile crash that kills her troubled, genius mother.Born into a family that had once been financially secure and with an absentee father nowhere to be found, Beth was living in a decrepit trailer with her mother Alice (Chloe Pirrie) and now she’s an orphan.
Ending up at the Methuen Home for young girls that observes strict rules, the introverted Beth makes few friends, but does find common cause with an older, more cynical girl Jolene (Moses Ingram) who becomes an ally and lifelong friend.Given that whip-smart Beth completes her classroom assignments faster than the others, she is tasked with cleaning chalkboard erasers in the basement, where she encounters the janitor playing solitary games of chess. Intrigued by the custodian’s studious affection for the game, Bath watches the reclusive Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) moving the chess pieces on the 64-square board and eventually convinces him to become a mentor.
With an inquisitive mind that she may have inherited from her mother who had a doctorate from Cornell University, Beth quickly demonstrates a grasp for the game that would be unusual in a person so young.In a fairly short amount of time, Beth m￼anages to best the experienced player. Impressed by the youngster’s skill, Mr. Shaibel arranges for his student to enter a chess tournament at the local high school, where she thumps the practiced opponents.Meanwhile, the orphanage doles out so-called vitamins on a daily basis to the kids, but the green ones are actually a tranquilizer that is intended to keep the girls docile but results in a mind-altering impact on Beth.
On the advice of Jolene, Beth saves the green pills for nighttime gazing at the dormitory ceiling to visually imagine huge chess pieces moving about in moves that emulate noted stratagems of chess grandmasters. As a teenager, Beth is adopted by the Wheatleys who reside in Lexington, Kentucky. The notion of an idyllic new life is soon shattered by the fact that the aloof father Allston (Patrick Kennedy) is a traveling salesman who makes excuses to stay on the road.The mother Alma (Marielle Heller), realizing her marriage is slipping away, is a functioning alcoholic and a gifted piano player who could have carved her own path if not for stage fright.
However tenuous the connection between Alma and Beth, the two of them forge a symbiotic relationship imbued with vulnerability and addiction. Both pop pills and Beth develops an unhealthy attraction to alcohol as an emotional crutch.After winning the Kentucky regional chess championship by beating local whiz Harry Beltik (Harry Melling), Beth is primed for more contests, which garners the interest of Alma upon realizing prize money is at hand in chess matches.Beth and her mother embark on a whirlwind of travel, while the media start to bring attention to the young chess prodigy. A tournament win in Cincinnati opens the door to more opportunities.
￼At the US Open in Las Vegas, Beth meets her equal in US champion Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), but with the good fortune of him on the sidelines the ability to become the American winner is within reach. A trip to Mexico City allows Beth to meet Russian grandmaster Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski), the chess equivalent of the Great White Whale that Beth will eventually have to chase on her trajectory to greater fame.Graced with terrific period settings that include glitzy Las Vegas, glamorous Paris and Cold War-era Soviet Union, “The Queen’s Gambit” is a visual treat of production values that one has to marvel at the precision of the details.
But more than gorgeous visuals, this limited series is a compelling character study of a chess player who remains an enigma to friends and competitors, seemingly reluctant to have serious emotional connections with anyone.If anything, the performance of Anya Taylor-Joy as the chess master who battles her inner demons with varying degrees of success and failure is something to behold.The leading character’s impressively skilled and glamourous outcast, often driven by anger or self-doubt, makes “The Queen’s Gambit” a worthy binge-watch.