TV: The Queen’s Gambit

Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit (2020) is definitely a case of warranted hype. Clocking in at seven brisk episodes, it’s a pitch-perfect historical drama chronicling the coming of age of a young orphan named Beth Palmer (Anya Taylor-Joy, in what should be a star-making turn). When Beth’s single mother dies in a car accident as a child, she ends up in a stultifying orphanage where her only respite comes from an unexpected source: chess. Taught to play by a reluctant, terse janitor named Schaibel (Bill Camp), Beth turns out to have a natural affinity for the game’s complexities and gradually becomes a chess sensation, starting in local competitions and eventually gaining international renown. But the tragic circumstances of her childhood have left psychological scars and self-sabotaging habits, so that despite her incredible gifts, she experiences considerable difficulty overcoming her past and making her way in the world.

The Queen’s Gambit is one of those rare, magical viewing experiences; I simply couldn’t find fault with it. Written and directed by Scott Frank, it’s a winning, absorbing drama with a flawed but likable character facing tough personal challenges with inspiring determination. Taylor-Joy brings the character vividly to life with an abundance of charisma, making it easy to root for her as she navigates the toxic sexism of a male-dominated sport with increasing confidence. The production values are top-notch, the pacing is slick, and the visual story-telling is exceptional, particularly in the chess sequences, which—without getting overly into the weeds of the rules and strategies—manage to be both compelling and suspenseful, while also perfectly eliciting character using mood, music, editing, and reaction shots. The cast surrounding Taylor-Joy is terrific, including Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Marcin Dorociński, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, Moses Ingram, and Harry Melling, with a special call-outs to touching performances from Marielle Heller as Beth’s troubled adoptive mother, and Isla Johnston, who portrays Beth as a young girl. I’m generally wary of high praise and the expectations that come with it, but The Queen’s Gambit earns every accolade. It’s just an exquisite piece of television.

 

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