Sports movies and series always find an audience. Because who doesn’t want to see the underdog win? The new limited series The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix will have you hooked for this very reason and several more, least of which is a fantastic cast that doesn’t let you down.
Love chess? You’ll love The Queen’s Gambit. But even if you are not a player, you’ll enjoy this impeccably crafted, beautifully shot, and steadily paced seven-part series on an orphan girl who rises in the 1950s male-dominated world of US chess. Named after a chess move, the series follows the life of chess prodigy Beth Harmon, whose talent is discovered by the orphanage’s custodian; the plot traverses her rise to fame, addiction, subsequent downfall, and rise (to becoming a Grandmaster) again. All set against the backdrop of the US’ chess rivalry with the USSR, last recapped in the 2014 Tobey Maguire movie Pawn Sacrifice.
The Queen’s Gambit is based on the 1983 book by Walter Tevis, also the author of The Hustler, Mockingbird, and The Colour of Money (which later became a movie starring Tom Cruise). Though it is a work of fiction, Tevis, himself a Class C chess player, studied and drew from the world of Grandmasters like Robert Fischer, Boris Spassky, and Anatoly Karpov, even as he says in his Author’s Notes in the book that “it seemed prudent to omit them from the cast of characters, if only to prevent contradiction of the record”.
Tevis also battled addiction early in his life, a theme which finds expression in the book and the series. He passed away a year after the book was published, but not before saying in an interview to The New York Times, “When I was young, I was diagnosed as having a rheumatic heart and given heavy drug doses in a hospital. That’s where Beth’s drug dependency comes from in the novel.”
The Queen’s Gambit has been a long time in the making, albeit it was different people trying to bring it to life. First it was author, journalist, and screenwriter Jesse Kornbluth, and then it has been reported that Allan Scott, who has owned film rights of the book since 1992, was working with Heath Ledger on a screenplay — it would have starred Ellen Page. Ironically, Ledger was a chess player himself and was battling addiction. The project got shelved when the actor passed away in 2008. Netflix eventually picked up the project in 2019, with the Oscar-nominated Scott Frank writing, directing, and executive producing.
While The Queen’s Gambit is essentially a sports movie, several subtle themes of feminism, friendship, and unfair social mores play out in it. The series is perfectly paced, with impeccable costume styling and sets that transport the viewer to the America of the 50s and 60s. Fun fact: The chess moves in the series were designed by chess coach Bruce Pandolfini and Grandmaster Garry Kasparov. But it’s the performances that ultimately blow you away.
Essaying the role of the protagonist, Taylor-Joy as a socially awkward chess genius is a delight to watch. Dealing with the loss of her only parent at age eight, loneliness, and early addiction, and finding refuge in a board game, Beth’s character shines due to Taylor-Joy’s restrained, tight performance. You may have seen her in the deeply disturbing The Witch and Manoj Night Shyamalan’s Split, but it’s in The Queen’s Gambit that you’ll think of Taylor-Joy as someone to watch out for.
As the stern Mr Shaibel, the custodian at Beth’s orphanage, Bill Camp strikes a chord in a short role. A man of few words, Mr Shaibel initiates Beth into the game, sowing in her the seeds of passion for it, which eventually nudges her into the spotlight.
Remember the young, pudgy Dudley Dursley of the Harry Potter series? Meet the man he has become. Melling portrays Harry Beltik, the first state champion Beth beats, and eventually has a romantic alliance with. Melling has evolved into a fine actor, a fact that was evident in his last appearance on Netflix as well — in The Devil All the Time, he played a fanatical preacher suffering from God Complex.
Here’s another kid making a strong impression. Back on screen after the success of the Maze Runner series, Brodie-Sangster (the little boy from Love Actually) as Benny Watts is the calm, arrogant, reigning Grandmaster and US champion, who goes on to teach Beth all the tricks (moves?) of the trade.
Fellow orphan, confidante, and sounding board, Jolene is the only real friend Beth has during her days at the orphanage. While she is the first one to realise that Beth has an addiction problem, she also returns years later, to once again hold the mirror up to Beth.
A special shoutout for the young girl who plays Beth Harmon. Deadpan, quiet, and deeply scarred by her mother’s suicide, Johnston delivers an impeccable performance, portraying a kid who gets addicted to tranquilizers yet knows the effects it has on her love for the game.
All images: Courtesy Netflix