The Pawn Identity
The Queen's Gambit
Netflix 2019 Directed by Scott Frank
Mini Series Seven Episodes
The Queen’s Gambit is a seven episode mini series about a fictional chess player from a somewhat damaged background who goes on to compete against the Russian Grandmasters on their home turf. Now, I’ve never been much of a chess player, it has to be said. I learned the game when I was about 6 or 7 but I lost pretty much all the games I played so I never really bothered getting into it properly. I could only see the game for four or five moves ahead and don’t have the kind of mind able to focus on huge combinations of moves and their consequences simultaneously. I’m more of a Maths person so, despite the ‘chance’ element of a dice roll, I’m much more of a Backgammon friendly competitor, truth be told.
That being said, I’ve always been fascinated with the way it’s been portrayed in film, with two of my favourites of the many chess movies out there being The Luzhin Defence (a very early, very short review from the dawn of NUTS4R2 can be found here, don’t judge me, I was just starting out) and Knight Moves with Christopher Lambert, which I haven’t seen since it played in cinemas back in the early 1990s... but I remember it made some kind of impact on me.
Another thing which drew me to finding a way to see this one was the actress playing the adult version of main protagonist, Beth Harmon. She’s portrayed here by Anya Taylor-Joy and I’ve been looking out for her work since seeing her in films like The VVitch (reviewed here) and Morgan (reviewed here). I’ve seen her in a number of films since (I’m really not going to list all my reviews with her in this blog article) and I have to say that, she’s one of those rare actresses who come along, just occasionally, possessing real star quality... like the old titans of cinema from an age long gone. Sure, there are some great actresses out there and I love them all but the strange, almost alien look of this actress and the fact that, when she’s on screen it’s hard to look at anybody else, is something else. She’s pretty good at her craft, for sure but, she’s also a ‘star’ and those are very few and far between these days. This mini series really cements that aspect of her, in my opinion.
That being said, it would be easy to fall into the trap to think that she somehow carries the weight of the series on her shoulders here but, she doesn’t. This is so well presented and directed, for one thing, that the somewhat dazzling technique of the work really pulls all the elements together. Plus there’s a hell of a crew of good actors and actresses who more than hold their own alongside the main protagonist and they also deserve a shout out and a rousing round of applause... I’ll name check Annabeth Kelly and Isla Johnston (as younger versions of Beth Harmon), Moses Ingram, Marielle Heller (brilliant as the ‘mother’ who adopts the orphaned Harmon), Harry Melling, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Marcin Dorociński and, in a small but impactful character role, Bill Camp as the caretaker who teaches the young orphan the rudiments of chess.
The show starts off with a short bookend section set in the 1960s (when the majority of the show takes place) which we catch up to again in episode six, to introduce Anya Taylor-Joy... but then very quickly switches to the younger version of her character growing up in the 1950s, in an orphanage, for the reminder of the first episode (Taylor-Joy gets to shine in all the other episodes). The episode deals with how the character becomes dependent on tranquiliser pills to open up the part of her already Mathematically brilliant head to see chess moves in her mind’s eye (often presented as a literal interpretation and appearing on her ceiling, a shorthand which the director gets you used to so he can fall back on it to make quick plot points at a later point in the show). After she’s adopted and is starting to become successful as a chess player, she also starts taking up the booze favoured by her heavy drinking new mother and this further fuels her dependence on mind altering substances.
Now, when I started watching the first episode a credit came up on the screen that the show is based on a novel by Walter Tevis. So, yeah, of course, the whole drugs and alcohol thing made perfect sense. I haven’t read Tevis’ original novel so I can’t say how faithful this adaptation is but I have read his more famous novel, The Man Who Fell To Earth (which is also a wonderful movie, reviewed by me here, again... it’s an early review by me, don’t bite my head off). That particular story deals with an alien who is trying to get enough money to put together a spaceship to take him back to his own world and family but who ends up stuck on Earth after wrecking his life on booze and pills. So, yeah, I’m not going to give away the trajectory of Beth Harmon here but, I will say their characters share similar journeys in their respective tales... up to a certain point, at least.
And I’m really not going to spoil this for you and give you a move by move account of what happens throughout the seven episodes... but I will say it’s perhaps more than just a little predicatable and clichéd in content for most of the time. I will also say that this aspect of it really doesn’t matter because the execution is so well done and it certainly holds its interest as the writer/director lifts the lid on the obsessive thought processes and behaviours of international chess players. In terms of that aspect, a very special friend of mine complained that the conclusion was way too Disney-like and, I 'd have to agree on that to an extent, it’s a bit syrupy but, at the same time, it’s pretty much the only ending I was hoping for by the time it got there so, I’m not going to complain about that. Because it’s just done so well.
The drained pastels and check patterns found in the way the colours are sedately aligned in an almost mechanical and precision manner are a good solution to showing the way a chess playing mind might see the world. The chess games themselves are quite lively, with the main ones never being constructed the same way twice. In one important competition, for example, the director goes ‘full on’ into The Thomas Crown Affair mode in terms of using a kind of adrenalised split scene sequence vaguely reminiscent of the Steve McQueen/Faye Dunaway chess scene (without the erotic overtones, these are competition matches). Another tournament has a wonderful shot where a top down view of Beth Harmon against a competitor at one table is panned across past some audience members (some of whom dissolve out of shot to be replaced with different ones to show the passage of time while the camera is still making the slow pan) to finish up above the table opposite to reveal, when the camera then moves down into shot, that this is also Beth Harmon finishing up another opponent on the opposite table. And stuff like this and the audio cues of the clock timers running through non-chess scenes with equal abandon keeps the series sharp and constantly watchable.
Another thing the director does, which shows a very mature understanding of the use of drama in literature but, it can be extremely powerful in the world of the moving image too, is to have a big lead in with a lot of chess games in a specific tournament until the character gets to play the final against the opponent you are waiting for her to beat (after twice setting up the moment by having her lose to him a couple of times previously in the show)... only to see the very first, opening move (as a pawn is slammed down with a fake echo to accentuate that, yeah, this a big one) before cutting away from the game completely and just going onto the aftermath to explain, via the two players in a bar, what actually happened. This was a great way of doing things and really showed me the director knew how to ‘throw film around’ to heighten the tension and release of the drama. Great stuff.
Also, as an added bonus to cinephiles in the first episode, the director really ramps up the tension by having Beth attempt to steal some locked away tranquilisers while all the other staff and kids at the orphanage are busy watching The Robe (which I reviewed here). The thing is, if you’re familiar with the movie, you’ll know that Harmon goes to do her stuff when the movie is on the final scene... so it’s a mite more suspenseful, I suspect, if you know that the film has only a few more minutes to run before the possibility that she’s caught.
And I don’t think there’s much more I want to reveal about The Queen’s Gambit... you need to watch this little slice of genius for yourself. I will say that Carlos Rafael Rivera's score is wonderful but, alas, not available on CD at time of writing (only in a stupid, electronic download format) and the needle drop songs throughout out the show are... well, it’s mostly set in the sixties so, of course they’re going to be pretty good. Also, I love that they use a Donovan song in this because, hey, he’s one of the all time great artists who truly encompasses the spirit of the 1960s. So, yeah, this show comes with a definite recommendation from me and you should all check this out. One of the great mini series of our time.