Let’s start with the most important fact about The queen’s gambit: You don’t have to know how to play chess to love it. The real drama is elsewhere.
The premise of the first limited series on Netflix is pretty straightforward: the struggles of a chess prodigy with a serious pill and alcohol problem. In the wrong hands, this could easily be a lifetime special. But the “hands” here are much more skillful: the lead role is played by the remarkable Anya Taylor-Joy. Screenplay and direction are by Scott Frank, who wrote the screenplays for Out of sight and Get Shorty. And the source material is a novel by the sadly underrated Walter Tevis, who wrote the books that inspired The Hustler, the color of money, and The man who fell to earth.
Still, I have to admit that before watching the new series I had my doubts. The queen’s gambit has been one of my favorite novels for years; it’s not just a book you should read – it’s a book to re-read, and it gets better every time. So I felt a little protective and worried. Could anyone do this subtle novel justice? A novel where much of the action takes place on a chessboard and in the minds of the players, and the issue of addiction is treated with much more subtlety than is usually found in movies or shows. television on this topic.
Oh me, little faith. I didn’t count on the formidable talents of Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays chess champion Beth Harmon, or Marielle Heller, who takes on the role of the woman who adopts Beth as a challenge. I should add Annabeth Kelly and Isla Johnston, who play younger versions of Beth, especially Johnston, who wears the first episode, when 9-year-old Beth discovers her affinity for chess and her penchant for tranquilizers given out for free by the orphanage to which she is consigned after the suicide of her mother.
Walter Tevis wrote both realistic and science fiction novels, but his obsessions were always the same: alienation, addiction, and the inordinate and almost fatal pride which, like a shadow in the light, is superimposed on a natural gift. Beth is kind of like pretentious Eddie Felson in The Hustler and, although never so lost, like the stranger in The man who fell to earth. But Beth is a much more complicated and nuanced character. Like Felson, she must master self-discipline and gain self-awareness to beat her ultimate opponent, and like the alien on earth, she has a serious addiction problem. But the melodrama that defiles The Hustler is not found in The queen’s gambit. There’s also no easy, reductive treatment for addiction, which Tevis says can both help and harm (the miniseries is a bit more doctrinaire on this point).
And anyway, the addiction in Beth’s case isn’t so much the problem as it is a sign of trouble. When one of her opponents turned coach remarks that her anger gets in her way, she says, “Anger clears my head.” To which he replies, “Anger is a powerful spice. A pinch wakes you up. Too much dull your senses. “
Walter Tevis loved games, or at least the games he wrote about, and few authors have written about billiards or chess as well. The novel and miniseries poke fun at the idea, brought to Beth by a distraught reporter, that the game is some kind of metaphor, where the Queen symbolizes her lost mother and the King her missing father. No, Beth replies, it’s a game. And beautiful for itself and nothing else. Tevis even likes him well enough to amuse him a little. When a slightly taken aback Beth says to one of her former opponents, “You think I’m a prima donna, don’t you?” he replies: “We are all prima donnas. These are failures … “
Books and movies are subject to different rules. There are no fiery soundtrack moments in Tevis’ prose, which is purposefully calm and poker-oriented. He gives you the situation and lets you decide what it means. Frank’s filming of the novel is more dramatic – there East a soundtrack – but it respects its source material enough not to get too lost. And when he improvises on the book, he’s smart about it, like when he imaginatively finds visual equivalences for Tevis’ storytelling: without anything being said explicitly, we recognize Beth’s maturity, and her growing sense of self-esteem, the way her hair styles are changing, the increasing sophistication of her wardrobe (she is very tasteful) and, most importantly, the way she is doing. Even as a child, Beth is a force to be reckoned with. The gruff janitor who teaches him how to play chess in the basement of the orphanage has all he can do to face his talent, his anger and his pride. As she grows up, nothing can stop her, not even her own shortcomings.
But it’s Anya Taylor-Joy, playing 13-22-year-old Beth in a seemingly effortless makeover, that does the job of Frank’s film, especially in the way she beautifully articulates interiority, fury, and the intelligence of Tevis creation. She does this mostly with her face, where subtle emotions register like a twinkle of light or wind on a still pond. This is particularly noticeable because Beth is often brooding, never acts, and talks with the economy of a miser who accumulates gold. Taylor-Joy is one of those actors who makes you watch while holding back. There’s something so secret and private about her character, a restraint that might take us away but rather makes us hungry for more. And Frank and Taylor-Joy punctuate the revelations about Beth so well that we are captivated by her mystery to the end.
“Beth is too strong, even as a little girl, to ever give in to the idea that she is a victim. Instead, she uses the way she was fired because of her gender to her advantage.“
It doesn’t hurt that Frank surrounded his star with an extraordinary cast, and no one more extraordinary than Marielle Heller as a foster mother, Alma Wheatley, a housewife from Lexington, Ky., Lost in a bad situation. marriage (Mr. Wheatley is a traveling salesman so ghostly that when he finally disappears, it was almost like he was never there). Infused with tranquilizers and alcohol – the toxic combo so popular in the 1950s and 1960s where the story unfolds – Alma is a frustrated pianist who never kept her promise and hardly a role model for her daughter adoptive. But where other stories might play into her predatory actions – Alma uses Beth’s tournament earnings as an income supplement –The queen’s gambit rather gives us a pitiful but ultimately sympathetic woman. Beth and Alma are more friends and conspirators than mother and daughter, and watching Alma drink herself to death is the saddest part of the story.
Part of the reason the Beth-and-Alma thread rings so true is that no actor overlaps. Their affection translates into little things – a hand on an arm, a pale smile. Likewise, Alma’s madness and fear when her husband abandons her are subtle things. Even her drinking never has a moment ah-ha, causing a jolt for the viewer when she suddenly dies: you realize her drinking problem was there all the time, but, like Beth and everyone around them, you ignored it. So, this powerful story even involves its viewers, with the result that we are quite reluctant to pass judgment even as we double down and pay closer attention.
Beth’s trajectory from ugly orphaned duckling to world-class chess champion is not uncontrolled. She loses some of her matches. And the first loss is the bitterest, almost derailing it. But not quite. Again, no melodrama. Somewhere along the way, I started counting plot setups that in many movies would produce great scenes or end in clichés. For example, there’s the moment when popular high school girls finally invite her after school – only after being profiled in Life magazine! Beth goes there but it only lasts long to realize how boring these mean girls are. But there is no big confrontation, no return on investment. She sneaks in right after stealing a bottle of alcohol.
And of course, there’s the fact that Beth is a girl and then a woman playing a male dominated game. History does not overlook this fact, but neither does it dwell on it. Beth is too strong, even as a little girl, to let go of the idea that she is a victim. Instead, she uses the way she was fired because of her gender to her advantage. And no one does that for long anyway.
As she heads towards her ultimate goal of whipping Russian Grandmaster Borgov, she learns, including losing twice to him, that she is her own most dangerous opponent. Self-discovery is the heart of this story: Beth’s belated realization that no matter how good she is, she needs other people to complement herself. This is what I meant when I started by saying that ignorance of chess is not an obstacle to the pleasure of the spectator: the drama that matters the most is not played out on a board, but on the Beth’s face and in her body language, and in her heart. And thanks to the amazing collaborative skill of Scott Frank and Anya Taylor-Joy, there is no doubt what this heart contains.
To that silly story reporter who tried to get Beth to say that the chess pieces symbolized people, that the queen was her missing mother, I mean, maybe you got it half right after all. But the Queen is not Beth’s mother, you fool. The queen is the most powerful piece on the board. The queen is Beth.
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