The Queen’s Gambit is a Netflix limited series based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis. The series is alternately a chess fantasy and a feminist drama. Starring Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon, the main character, the story is set in the 1950s and 1960s.
Initially, I had found the premise of The Queen’s Gambit somewhat preposterous – the idea of a female chess prodigy in the 1960s seemed to stretch incredulity to breaking point. But then I realised that novelist Tevis’ over-riding concept in the book was an exploration of the inner workings of genius in women, and it slowly began to make sense to me.
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However, the execution of the original premise by director Scott Frank leaves much to be desired in the TV adaptation. Sure, the cinematography is luscious, the locations are dazzling, the costumes are eye-catching and Taylor-Joy is a wonder to behold but at no time was I allowed into the mind of Beth Harmon.
Superficially, I understood the facts of her life as laid out in the series. Beth was the result of an extra-marital affair and her psychologically damaged mother caused her own death after being rejected by her father. This tragic event led to Beth ending up in an orphanage where she picked up two life habits – chess and an addiction to tranquilliser pills.
All well and good but I was not able to engage with Beth. She came across like a cold, calculating savant – cruelly disconnected with the world with chess the only thing giving her life any meaning. Perhaps this was a deliberate choice but it was difficult to build any rapport with her character.
I appreciate that elements of Beth’s ascent as a chess grandmaster are inherently fantastical but surely an effort to humanise her more would have enhanced the viewers investment into her fate. This is regrettable as Taylor-Joy is capable of imbuing said humanity into Beth but the script fails to capitalise on her gifts.
In addition, perhaps a big part of my failure to connect was my absolute disinterest in chess itself and the series’ inability to make what is essentially a snobbish nerdish boring game into an exciting spectator sport (which it is not!). Since the chess tournaments were a key part of the narrative of The Queen’s Gambit, this aspect was the ultimate obstacle that could not be overcome!
Most of the time, I also got the feeling that the seven episodes were padded with cool music sequences to avoid serious characterisations. Definitely a lost opportunity. Still, if you have seven hours to spare, then The Queen’s Gambit is an excellent diversion from the world’s ills.
The Queen’s Gambit is now streaming on Netflix.
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