Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 22nd, 2020
The Queen’s Gambit (Scott Frank, 2020) 2½ out of 4 stars.
A seven-part adaptation of Walter Tevis’ eponymous 1983 novel, Scott Frank’s The Queen’s Gambit follows chess prodigy Beth Harmon from orphaned childhood to the top of the rankings, starting in the 1950s and ending in 1968. As the teenage and adult Beth, Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma.) brings intensity and intelligence to the role. Clothed in increasingly modish outfits, she also brings a fair amount of style, which is all to the visual good, yet does make one wonder why she has to be sexy when the men are allowed, with few exceptions, to be frumpy and dowdy. Can she not just be brilliant? Not that there’s anything wrong with beauty and brains, of course, but the relentless emphasis on her growing comeliness seems like a distraction.
Perhaps that’s because, despite the chess narrative, there is so little actual discussion of the ins and out of the game. Frank either takes for granted our general knowledge and interest, or has a more traditional kind of coming-of-age narrative in mind. Yes, chess is omnipresent, and it’s fun to watch the matches that Beth almost always wins, but we never really dwell on what moves do what and how she triumphs. Instead, our attention is focused squarely on her humble origins, adoption, rise to the top and the relationships (or lack thereof, at times) she forms on her way up.
Instead, her real challenge to overcome is that of addiction, a problem she develops in the very first episode, as a girl (played by a solid Isla Johnston), when the orphanage where she ends up, after her mother kills herself (and almost Beth) by driving head first into another car, prescribes daily doses of tranquilizers to keep the kids calm. There, she also meets Jolene (Moses Ingram), a fellow orphan and convenient Black character who disappears after the second episode, only to show up again at the end when most needed (see Frank’s previous Netflix series, Godless, for a further look at his problematic treatment of characters of color). More immediately important, plotwise, she wanders into the basement, where she encounters the janitor, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp, Dark Waters), and wonders at the board and pieces in which he is so engrossed. Initially dismissive of her, he quickly comes to realize that she is sui generis, and helps her in her early training.
In the second episode, after a period where, because of pill hoarding, she is banned from further playing of chess, Beth is adopted by a warring couple that hopes a new addition will help make life bearable. It does, for the mother, played by an exceptional Marielle Heller (director of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), but the father takes off before long. No matter, as the two women become fast friends, especially once new mom realizes there is money to be made by winning tournaments. Unfortunately, she’s a terrible role model, drinking and drugging in a way that invites emulation, and so Beth’s demons return.
For the rest of the series, we follow every obstacle and opportunity along Beth’s path, with supporting actors such as Thomas Brodie-Sangster (The Maze Runner) and Harry Melling (The Old Guard) on hand to provide able assists. From Kentucky to Nevada to Mexico to France and, finally, to Russia, Beth builds a reputation as the lone woman in a man’s game. A lone woman with panache, that is.
This is by no means a failure of a series, but neither is it an exceptional piece of work. Whatever feminist message there is in Beth’s success is somewhat undercut by the insistence on her elegance, and the push-and-pull of addiction and recovery is treated more like a plot point than a life-threatening disability. Even when Beth’s story descends into chaos, there’s a tidiness to the writing that overtly promises final redemption. The Queen’s Gambit is watchable, but lacks the kind of genuine mystery that would elevate the material beyond that middling bar. It’s better than a draw, but not much more.