Better Late Than Never: The Queen’s Gambit
Chess has always been one of those things that, as far as entertainment goes, has always been better in metaphor than the subject for its own film or television shows. There are dozens of episodes of TV shows that show people playing it; very few that actually deal with what makes it a great game. The fact that prodigies come out of it more often than almost any other game doesn’t necessarily lend to great drama.
That changed when Netflix dropped The Queen’s Gambit last December. Based on an obscure Walter Tevis novel, the limited series deals with the life of Elizabeth Harmon, a young female chess prodigy in a game that in the 1960s — and to this day — has very few women players, much less geniuses. Her story is one that is full of tragedy long before we even meet her. Her mother has died in a car accident, and she is sent to a Catholic orphanage. She spends most of her days in the middle of a routine, given ‘pills’ as part of it. That all changes when she goes down to the basement and finds an old man known as Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp of The Outsider and The Night of) playing chess. For days she watches him. Then she works up the nerve to ask to learn the play. Shaibel is the only person in the series who treats her as an equal.
Throughout the first episode, he slowly teaches her. She surpasses very quickly. Then he invites a teacher to see her play. Then she goes to a high school to play the chess club. She beats everybody who plays her, and is not impressed by them in the least, even though she isn’t even thirteen. We see how chess works to her in a bizarre way at night; she looks at the ceiling which has the form of a board. She imagines the pieces moving in her head and we see them on the ceiling. How much of this is her and how much are the tranquilizers she takes we don’t know…yet.
In the second episode, she is adopted by the Wheatleys — most importantly, Alma (Marielle Heller). Alma has only the vaguest of interests in being a mother, wants to dress her ‘daughter’ like a doll, have her join dance clubs and cheerleader clubs. She had dreams of being a pianist at one point, but suffered from massive stage fright. Her maternal instincts are hampered severely by the ‘medicine’ she takes. On her own, Alma finds out about a chess tournament in Kentucky. She doesn’t understand clocks or rankings, suffers the casual sexism of the men in charge, and after winning one of her matches, has her first period. All she has in confidence in herself and more skill than all the grandmasters who face her.
This is an engrossing series to watch, but the thing that makes it exceptional is the lead performance of Elizabeth by Anya Taylor-Joy. Last February, I had the privilege of seeing her play the title role in Emma, and am having a hard time believing it’s the same actress. It’s not just that her beauty and skill; it’s the stare. Elizabeth is a woman of very few words, so a lot of Taylor-Joy’s brilliance comes from her silent looks into the distance, sometimes when she’s decided how to move, more often when she lost in her thoughts. I don’t remember a look of concentration that intense since the days of Andre Braugher in Homicide. There’s the same level of confidence, too. When Alma tells her about a tournament in Cincinnati and that they’ll make money even if she comes in second or third, Elizabeth simply says: “I’ll win.” No doubt in her voice.
Do you need to understand chess to enjoy The Queen’s Gambit? Probably not. The game itself is played so quickly and the terms for victory so simple that we get the message: Elizabeth is brilliant at it. One knows, given the flashes we got of her life in the first episode, and the way she takes pills like they were candy, that there was tragedy in her past and there’s likely pain ahead. And it is hard not to watch Taylor-Joy even for a second and not be mesmerized by her work. This is likely an early contenders for awards down the line, and even more amazing, it may actually make chess sexy.
My score: 4.75 stars.