The Queen’s Gambit – Review

I’m conflicted on the portrayal of addiction, but other than that this show is awesome.

The Queen’s Gambit is a 2020 Netflix miniseries revolving around Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), an orphan that comes to rely on a substance abuse problem for her chess abilities. After she gets adopted, she grows into a chess master with information learned from a janitor at the orphanage and goes on to challenge the Russian badass for the title of ultimate Grandmaster.

So…it’s a lot like Rocky IV, but with chess instead of punching and a girl instead of Sly Stallone’s gnarled vocal chords. 

Taylor-Joy really is a star. She broke onto the scene at 2015’s Sundance Film Festival when The VVitch premiered and left the rest of us desperate to see it in theatres. Since then she’s joined the X-Men and become Shyamalan’s apprentice behind the camera, a Hollywood icon that’s interested in being part of the entire creative process. Her performance in The Queen’s Gambit involves a lot of unfortunate realities, from an alcoholic’s drunken sway to a tweaker’s eye movements. Her steady focus is something I wish I’d had as a child. I grew up around “woman driver” jokes and the idea that a woman’s period somehow left her unqualified for politics. Growing up with something like this would have been a watershed moment in understanding the equality of men and women in a culture that fostered alienating them from all but breeding. It’s astounding that the actress is able to do that within a single performance.

Aside from that is the idea of chess. It’s a difficult game, one involving a lot of strategy and hard work to master. The accuracy involved in the miniseries has been lauded by grandmasters Jennifer Shahade, Jovanka Houska, and Dorsa Derakhshani for its accuracy in portraying important games. In 2006 the James Bond franchise was rebooted with Casino Royale, which used Hold ‘Em poker and involved a lot of consistency and accuracy to portray game events (most of which was, unfortunately, cut from the film). The Queen’s Gambit is the first instance I’ve seen in nearly 15 years that put as much effort into portraying the stages and strategy involved in playing a game. It’s beautiful.

There’s not much I can say without spoiling the show, but the beauty and intelligence of the show is spread over a lot of elements, from thematics to game strategy to even the period-accurate set design (it’s set in the 1960s). The Queen’s Gambit is one of the reasons miniseries need to exist; showcases for writers and actors and creatives of all kinds to come and tell a longform story that is just far more than a film can contain. It’s a brilliant bit of adaptation, a way for Anya Taylor-Joy to show off, and may have the best soundtrack of the year. 

The Queen’s Gambit is currently streaming on Netflix.

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