tue 16/04/2024

The Queen's Gambit, Netflix review - chess prodigy's story makes brilliant television | reviews, news & interviews

The Queen's Gambit, Netflix review - chess prodigy's story makes brilliant television

The Queen's Gambit, Netflix review - chess prodigy's story makes brilliant television

Anya Taylor-Joy excels in adaptation of Walter Tevis's novel

Enigmatic: Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon

It’s surprising, perhaps, that the dramatic potential of chess hasn’t been more widely exploited. There was a nail-biting tournament in From Russia with Love, while the knight’s chequerboard struggle with Death was the centrepiece of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

In 1972 the game became a proxy for global power politics when Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky in Iceland, an event former world champion Garry Kasparov called “a crushing moment in the midst of the Cold War”.

But mostly this enigmatic pastime remains the preserve of its devotees, and its labyrinthine and intellectually demanding characteristics hardly make it a natural fit with TikTok or Instagram. Yet Scott Frank’s mini-series The Queen’s Gambit, adapted for Netflix from the novel by Walter Tevis (author of the pool-hall sagas The Hustler and The Color of Money), brilliantly converts the story of an orphaned girl who becomes a chess prodigy into some of this year’s most hypnotising television. He’s helped by a superb cast, a taut script and convincingly-realised depictions of late-Fifties and Sixties America (as well as Paris and Moscow). It all serves to amplify the allure of Tevis’s story of the torments and triumphs of learning to cope with a special gift, as well as the extra challenges of being a female pioneer in chess’s geeky, all-male environment.

Anya Taylor-Joy’s central performance as Beth Harmon, the daughter of a broken marriage who freakishly survived the car crash in which her brilliant but mentally disturbed mother planned to kill both of them, will surely be at the front of the queue when awards season comes around. But before that, a tip of the hat to Isla Johnston as the young Beth, who we first meet as the shocked and bewildered child trying to make sense of her institutional new home at the Methuen orphanage. The regime is strict and rigid, and the inmates are regularly dosed with tranquillisers to keep them docile. Beth finds her own imaginative outlet when she discovers the elderly caretaker Mr Shaibel (Bill Camp) playing chess alone in the basement, and she persuades him to teach her. Alone in her room, she uses the tranquillisers to trigger visions of giant chess pieces playing out moves on the ceiling. "I feel safe in an entire world of just 64 squares," as she'll put it.

It steadily becomes clear that Beth has genius-like abilities, but even as she’s crushing opponents at chess tournaments across America, she’s also a teenager trying to make sense of her seething emotions and a slowly-dawning sexuality, not helped by her lingering addiction to tranquillisers. The bond she forms with her adoptive mother Alma (Marielle Heller, pictured above) becomes a critical lifeline for both of them. Alma is trying to drag herself from the wreckage of her marriage – her husband has simply driven away and left her – and her new-found role as agent and confidant for Beth gives her a liberating new lease of life, even if it is threatened by her galloping alcohol problem.

The action plays out as the Sixties start to swing, with the initially dowdy, taciturn Beth gradually blossoming into a head-turning fashion icon as pop culture runs riot (the appearance of The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing” on the soundtrack was evidently the result of Taylor-Joy’s passion for the band). The Russia-USA chess rivalry is mirrored in Beth’s string of matches against the Russian champion Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski), and her progress on the chessboard goes hand in hand with her inner struggle to understand both her limitations and her potential. Taylor-Joy delivers a screen acting masterpiece, as she expresses flickers of emotion with a faint widening of an eye, a miniscule tilt of the head or a twitch of the lips. Terrific.

The initially dowdy, taciturn Beth gradually blossoms into a head-turning fashion icon as pop culture runs riot


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters