The Queen’s Gambit Review: A (Grand)masterful Portrait of Genius and Addiction

Netflix’s period piece miniseries tracks a chess prodigy’s highs and lows through striking visuals and sensitive storytelling.

The Queens Gambit Netflix Anya Taylor-Joy Review
Photo: Netflix

This The Queen’s Gambit review contains no spoilers.

Did you know that a chess game can run so long that it gets adjourned? The player whose turn it is records their next move in a sealed envelope so that when both opponents next sit down, refreshed, they can proceed as if play has been unbroken. That is just one of the intricacies of chess revealed to the layman viewer in Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, starring Anya Taylor-Joy as fictional chess prodigy Beth Harmon. Adapted from Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel, the miniseries—whose seven episodes are named for phases or moves of a chess game—itself resembles this form of match: Drawn-out in parts, but worth the necessary breaks, building to a complete and powerful experience by the end.

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Spanning a decade (taking place in the 1950s and ‘60s) and ranging from Kentucky to Moscow, Scott Frank’s series is equal parts sports narrative, period piece, and character study of the gray area between genius and psychosis. Taylor-Joy is magnetic as the brilliant and aloof Beth, a savant who craves the control of a chess board while grappling with the addiction that allows her to tap into that preternatural headspace that makes her a champion and potentially a grandmaster. Orphaned at a young age by a mother whose own mathematical brilliance is overshadowed by untreated mental illness and self-destructive tendencies, Beth learns self-reliance through her ability to scan through the algorithmic possibilities of a chess board. But because her entire sense of self is wrapped up in the identity of chess prodigy, and because she relies on tranquilizer pills (first handed out at the orphanage) to unlock that level of play, her need to win is much more desperate than that of her opponents.

Despite Beth’s insistence on stoic loneliness, The Queen’s Gambit boasts a stellar cast of supporting characters. Bill Camp is a standout as the orphanage’s gruff janitor Mr. Shaibel, who first nurtures young Beth’s fledgling talent. Among Beth’s professional opponents are former child stars Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Game of Thrones) as the cowboy-shtick Benny, and Harry Melling (Harry Potter) as the more sensitive Harry Beltik. Like an exquisitely carved set of chess pieces, each character augments Beth’s personal and professional paths. As fellow orphan Jolene, Moses Ingram commands each scene, though one might wish that her appearances weren’t so conveniently timed to breaking points in Beth’s life (yet the series also lampshades that). Then there’s Marielle Heller, perhaps best known as director of recent films like Can You Ever Forgive Me? and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, who brings that same affecting ache to her portrayal of Beth’s adoptive mother Alma Wheatley: A ‘60s housewife whose own creative impulses are stifled by her homemaker duties, she represents the kind of future Beth staunchly wishes to avoid.

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Though Beth herself becomes something of a role model for her female peers, she is utterly frustrated with the gender dimension of her narrative in a way that feels entirely authentic. For her time, she is considered exceptional because she’s a girl trouncing all the men at chess; yet she would rather be exceptional, period. Add to that her growing addiction to the pills, while taking after both of her mothers via alcoholism, and it only fuels her impostor syndrome—a term that hadn’t even been invented when this story takes place—and guilt at wasting this incredible, life-changing opportunity.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Beth’s career trajectory is witnessing how she steadily outpaces her male opponents. As Beth rises in the rankings, some of the previously mocking or dismissive men begin dropping off the tournament circuit, opting to examine the game from another, non-player perspective or to leave it behind altogether. These encounters both strengthen Beth’s conviction in her talent and challenge her to reconsider how healthy her single-minded obsession is.

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Some of these former opponents also return as love interests, another notable aspect of Beth being the sole girl in the boys’ club. The miniseries handles this type of occupational hazard with sensitivity and respect, managing to depict Beth’s fumbling explorations of her sexuality without ever demeaning her character.

It helps that sometimes a chess match is foreplay, playful and existing only between the two participants. Other times, it’s an anxiety attack, mentally moving pieces back and forth while scrambling to predict what the other person will do. Just as it demystifies the structure of a chess match, The Queen’s Gambit also takes great care in dramatizing, in incredibly engaging fashion, the gameplay itself. The casual viewer won’t necessarily be able to follow every lightning-fast move, but the flow and the narrative of every game is clear. The cinematography is superb, especially the recurring visual motif of Beth manifesting a chess board out of shadows on her bedroom ceiling, the ghostly pieces blinking in and out of reality as she trains herself to anticipate moves.

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It’s a rare series that can accurately render a particular form of genius without alienating the viewers who will always be the spectators. Beth’s struggles with addiction, and with the systems into which she was cosmically placed as some sort of powerless pawn, ground her brilliance without punishing her for it. Hers is a messy, poignant underdog story with the important takeaway that even if one becomes the queen, there’s no use in standing alone on an empty board; you’re nothing without the rest of the set.

The Queen’s Gambit premieres October 23 on Netflix.

Rating:

4 out of 5