Scott Frank, Allan Scott, and William Horberg developed The Queen’s Gambit from the absorbing 1983 novel of the same name by Walter Tevis (The Hustler and The Color of Money). But surprisingly, the seven-episode miniseries isn’t dialogue-heavy; mostly because Beth is so taciturn. Alluringly directed by Frank, who also wrote the series, Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit finds its closest comparisons in Queen of Katwe and Pawn Sacrifice by centering its narrative on a woman prodigy who fights through the weight of genius.
Beth is ruthless on the chessboard. As one player surmises, she’s all attack. She strikes with a deadly accuracy born from an intuitive wit. But she can’t overcome the Russian Grandmaster Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski). As opposed to her chess pieces, he’s immovable. The drama of their matches, and Beth’s battles with other lesser opponents, are driven by Taylor-Joy’s evocative performance. Her work, much of it captured through resolute close-ups, sees her micro-expressions outwardly emitting the fury, confusion, and fearless strategies firing off inside Beth’s mind. These scenes are difficult cracks to squeeze through for Taylor-Joy, because any of these eureka moments could play as cheap theatrics. But Taylor-Joy keeps the drama as grounded as the pieces she slides across the board. The show hangs on her every deliberate glance, and she delivers.
Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit Photos
Her battles are further imbued with immense gravity due to The Queen’s Gambit’s impeccable craft. The rapid give-and-go rhythms of a chess match are wonderfully on display, not only in Taylor-Joy’s electrifying performance, but through Michelle Tesoro’s captivating editing. Intuitive split screens, such as a Brady Bunch-inspired tile format, and a shot where the spaces on the chessboard become individual frames depicting ongoing matches, transform a sedentary game into a dynamic act. The sound, an element you wouldn’t expect to take on such great importance for a sport that’s as quiet as golf, makes every chess piece hit the board with the dramatic intensity of a torpedo. The action allows viewers who may know very little of this ancient game, like the difference between the Siscilian or the Najdorf Variation, to be completely immersed. Mixed with Carlos Rafael Rivera’s enchanting piano score, the close-ups of these tic-tac-toe-esque moves are breathtaking. Thankfully, much of the series operates through these enthralling matches.
The Queen’s Gambit’s supporting characters are like the pawns on Beth’s board; their purposes are limited. The custodian Mr. Schaibel (Bill Camp) is a craggy fellow who teaches her the game of chess in the school’s basement. Jolene (Moses Ingram), Beth’s black best friend in the orphanage, shows her the ropes of living in the school. She also coaxes the young Beth into savoring her tranquilizing pills (a soon-to-be debilitating habit for the young girl). D.L. Townes (there’s a sly joke in that name) is a fleeting crush for Beth, but he also falls by the wayside. Other characters suffer the same fate. They enter as fascinating figures yet diminish into passing intrigues. The script is just too slight. It’s a miniseries that’d probably work better as a movie.
Once Beth is adopted by Mrs. Alma (Marielle Heller, director of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), she becomes an outcast at her high school: The popular girls tease her for her bargain-basement attire and garish brown shoes. But when Mrs. Alma learns how much money Beth can earn from chess, the prodigy traces around the country to tournament after tournament. Their relationship heralds a tedious subplot; the perpetually sick Mrs. Alma drinks due to an unhappy marriage. A talented pianist suffering from stage fright, she’s stuck. She can only be two things: A mother or a housewife. As both, Mrs. Alma is laissez-faire: She allows Beth to drink, party, and smoke. The two don’t just bond over their shared vices, but their loneliness too. The potential exists for the subplot to crack the hardened shell of both Beth and Mrs. Alma. But even with Heller’s tender performance, very little between the pair bubbles to the surface that isn’t already floating at the top.Muted in color and lighting — the scenes are so dark you’d wonder if anyone owned a lamp during the 60s — The Queen’s Gambit looks as dreary as a rain cloud over a scrapyard outside of the chess matches. It’s an odd decision considering the hipness of the swinging’ 60s should allow for the vibrant attire to pop on even the most formal clothing. Even when Beth visits Las Vegas, New Mexico, and Paris, vivid cities with rich architecture, the municipalities are reduced to drab locales. Beth might only see the world in grey, but why must we be subjected to the same dull imagery? Ryan Murphy’s Ratched, a show set during the ‘50s, might have had a terrible story but the series had the pizzazz completely right.
The Queen’s Gambit also hasn’t met a phallic symbol it didn’t like. Take one of the many scenes of Beth lying in bed calculating chess permutations, a bird’s eye view shot shows a queen’s shadow sliding up her body. Another sees Beth calling home to her mom during a drug-filled party next to a penis-shaped candle. They’re manifestations of Beth’s eternal loneliness. There’s a mechanism inside of her that blows up her relationships before they happen. Her prohibitions arise from a gnawing fear of either becoming a housewife or relying on a man. In fact, Beth combats two adversarial men in the chess world, the nerdy Harry Beltik (Harry Melling) and the cocky cowboy Benny (Thomas Brodie-Sangster). And both float very closely to being possible lovers.
They buoy the action even when the melodrama shifts towards being overpowering. Take the final episode, when Beth confronts her drinking habit. Her struggles with alcohol and pills, fueled by the tragic memories of her biological mother’s death, would hit so much harder if they weren’t so predictable by modern storytelling standards: The number of narratives with geniuses suffering through the weight of their genius feels infinite at this point. And the way Frank utilizes Jolene as the magical black friend is even more formulaic. By the time the narrative shifts to Russia, when Beth faces Bergov for their final showdown, The Queen’s Gambit becomes something akin to Rocky IV. The previously suspicious Russians take Beth into their hearts, and it’d all be absurd if not for the inherent excitement of watching these tense chess matches.