Netflix's The Queen's Gambit makes chess mesmerizing

  • Vox

    "Chess shouldn’t be all that interesting to watch on screen, for probably obvious reasons," says Emily VanDerWerff. "The game involves a lot of people sitting and staring at a board, moving pieces around in quiet contemplation. And unless you’re a major chess fan, the moves the players make won’t immediately make sense in the way a baseball player hitting a home run does. But something that is interesting to watch onscreen is a great actor playing a compelling character who has a lot going on in their mind. A close-up on the actor’s face as the wheels turn in the character’s head can be gripping because attempting to think your way out of a problem is something we all have experienced. So the smartest choice Scott Frank makes in adapting Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel The Queen’s Gambit into a seven-episode Netflix miniseries is to focus not on the chess but on his actors’ faces, particularly that of his star. As chess prodigy Beth Harmon, Anya Taylor-Joy gives one of my favorite performances in ages. And Frank shows an understated confidence in relying not on fancy camera tricks but on close-ups that watch the star’s slightly too-wide eyes flicker with recognition as she finds the move to trounce yet another challenger."


    • The Queen's Gambit is the kind of prestige drama TV doesn't make anymore: "Are TV dramas OK?" asks Judy Berman. "I ask because, sometime during the past decade, a format once rooted in the daily struggles of more-or-less normal human beings came a bit unglued. So-called prestige drama got darker, stranger, flashier, pulpier, scarier or simply more intense. Forced by a surplus of original content to find a gimmick, many TV creators have turned away from realistic stories, to embrace fantasy, sci-fi, superheroes, melodrama. Maybe the tipping point was Game of Thrones. Maybe it was American Horror Story or The Walking Dead or even Downton Abbey’s metamorphosis from stodgy period piece to self-aware soap. Now, pay TV platforms such as HBO and Amazon are loading up on genre fare—some but not all of it great. Emotional dramas like Six Feet Under and Friday Night Lights have given way to the mawkish This Is Us. Procedurals are getting weird; The Good Wife team begat Evil. And the most authentic, vividly wrought characters of the last several years have mostly come from half-hour dramedies: Fleabag, Atlanta, Enlightened, BoJack Horseman, Better Things, Insecure, Catastrophe, Vida. At this point, any hour-long drama that forsakes intellectual property, narrative histrionics and expensive special effects in favor of psychological realism represents a welcome change of pace. And one as excellent as The Queen’s Gambit feels very rare indeed."
    • The Queen's Gambit is really an Anya Taylor-Joy Showcase: "Taylor-Joy is one of a handful of exceptions to the rule that They Just Don’t Make ’Em Like That Anymore—'’Em' meaning 'movie stars' and 'Like That' meaning 'performers forging successful careers through small, interesting projects,' not through superhero movies or TikTok dance challenges," says Alison Herman, adding: "With her widely spaced eyes, expressive face, and a femininity that leads men to chronically underestimate her, Taylor-Joy’s Beth invokes Jodie Comer’s star-making turn as the assassin Villanelle. (The Killing Eve comparisons go from obvious to inevitable when Beth starts sashaying around Moscow in fabulous outfits.)"
    • Taylor-Joy takes a role here that could have been all melodramatic tics and make this complex character feel completely three-dimensional: "It’s a rich part thanks to Frank’s notable writing talent, and Taylor-Joy nails it, finding subtle beats even as the narrative verges into melodrama," says Brian Tallerico. "It’s in the way she always crosses her arms or looks downward when she feels threatened. It’s the look in her eyes when she knows she’s won or lost a game. It’s in the body language differences when she’s with Alma instead of the men in her life. She approaches life the way she approaches chess, trying to figure out her opponents’ moves and how to come out on top, but Taylor-Joy always makes the subtle choice to convey these aspects of her character."
    • The Queen's Gambit is simply spellbinding: "Because The Queen’s Gambit is a work of fiction (that title, by the way, is mentioned 33 minutes into the first episode and then dispatched with), it tells exactly the engrossing character story it wants to, and how," says Allison Keene. "That might sound obvious, but it’s no small thing. With excellent pacing and a sure sense of itself out of the gate, The Queen’s Gambit is a work of art—riveting, radiant, and simply spellbinding. Like Beth, it triumphs through its devotion to a love of the game."
    • The Queen's Gambit will be remembered as the final star-making moment for Taylor-Joy before her movie career skyrockets: "The story is literally about an ingenue rising to global fame," says Darren Franich. "But Taylor-Joy excels in the quiet moments, her eyelids narrowing as she decimates an opponent, her whole body physicalizing angry desperation when the game turns against her. The king might be in trouble. Fortunately, the queen has all the best moves."
    • The Queen's Gambit is like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel meets A Beautiful Mind: The Netflix limited series is, "in screen terms, something like a cross between The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel — a lovingly decorated period piece, stretching from the late 1950s through most of the ‘60s, concerning a young woman triumphing in what was then considered a man’s game — and A Beautiful Mind, as an attempt to concretely represent the workings of an unusual intelligence living way out in the abstract," says Robert Lloyd.
    • The Queen's Gambit is a shrewd study of genius: "It’d be easy for the show to indulge too much in Beth’s allure and make her some sort of Manic Pixie Dream Genius, and it doesn’t always resist the temptation," says Caroline Framke. "But more often than not, it dives deep enough into her psyche and reveals enough weaknesses that she’s never invincible or unknowable. She’s a mastermind, but also an angry obsessive with a healthy ego and a love for obliterating herself before anyone else can do it to her. She wants to win, but more than that, she wants some place — someone — to call home. When The Queen’s Gambit gives both Beth and Taylor-Joy the room to tap into the twin veins of her fury and longing, it’s the best kind of bildungsroman. What could’ve just been a clever show quickly becomes a portrait of a special, flawed person that reveres her fire as much as her brilliance."
    • The Queen's Gambit's opening episode has an enchanting, storybook feel, but it's downhill from there: "Gambit never quite gets back to the charm of its Dickensian opening chapter... and it gets thinner as it goes along," says Mike Hale. "Frank pulls off his combination of themes with a lot of old-Hollywood-style skill, but in the mix, neither the sports nor the personal-demons story line hits the levels of visceral excitement or emotional payoff that you might want. In the end, it was an admirable package that I wanted to love more than I did."
    • The Queen's Gambit ultimately doesn’t have enough to say about addiction, mental illness and the isolation of true genius to sustain seven long episodes: "Many of these problems would have been alleviated had Frank made The Queen’s Gambit as a film, or even done three or four episodes rather than seven," says Alan Sepinwall. "...A lot of this story’s flaws and superficiality only become obvious because of how long it lingers, while the parts that are excellent (Taylor-Joy’s performance, the technical mastery) wouldn’t be diminished in a more abridged version of the tale."
    • The Queen's Gambit is a winning combination of escapism and period drama: "The grueling world of competitive chess isn’t the most obvious setting for an escapist tale, but The Queen’s Gambit is a frequently transportive series, filled with lavish set pieces, gorgeous costuming, and all the 1960s pop needledrops Netflix money can buy," says Danette Chavez. "Its more straightforward pleasures are offset by producer/writer/director Scott Frank’s meditative—and just as meticulously detailed—approach to period drama. Bridging those two worlds is a masterful performance by Anya Taylor-Joy, who leads the cast as Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy driven as much by her innate talent as her trauma."
    • Marielle Heller on playing Beth's adopted mother: "In so many ways, Beth is the exact thing that Alma needs, and Alma is the exact thing that Beth needs - they just don't know it," she says. "They sort of become the love of each other's lives, and they provide something that doesn't look like a traditional mother-daughter relationship, but that is really what they each need."
    • How The Queen's Gambit made its chess scenes believable and exciting: Bruce Pandolfini, a longtime chess author and coach who consulted on the original novel and the Netflix series, and Michelle Tesoro, The Queen’s Gambit’s editor, were the two key figures in putting together those scenes. Pandolfini says the chess matches had to make sense, even the ones offscreen. “It’s one thing to have moves that don’t quite make sense in a novel,” Pandolfini says, “but onscreen, it has to be very clear.” Tesoro says it was important to switch up the visual focus of each match. “When I started the project, Scott was like, ‘Here’s a bunch of films I don’t want it to be like,’” says Tesoro. “Which was, obviously, all the films that are already out there. He didn’t want it to be like anything else.”
    • Anya Taylor-Joy says Beth Harmon is "the character that I've had the least amount of skin between": “I understood her so immediately, and she came forth to me so quickly that it was like, this is slightly harder to handle, because it means that when Beth has a bad day, I will have a bad day," she says. "And I have to learn how to say, ‘Okay, this is not mine, this is the character's.’” Co-creator Scott Frank adds: “She came to us exhausted. She was really worried because she was so tired, but her first take of her first scene, she just nailed it. I was so relieved. She instantly switched gears, and she could do that on set all the time. We could be talking and laughing, and then the camera could roll, and she could be devastated and in tears. She's a real pro.”
    • Taylor-Joy didn't know how to play chess before signing up for the role: "No, not prior to beginning this odyssey," she says. "I’m very grateful to say my knowledge of chess came from people that are revered as chess gods. I got infected with the chess bug. I have mad respect for the game."

    TOPICS: The Queen's Gambit, Netflix, Allan Scott, Anya Taylor-Joy, Bruce Pandolfini, Michelle Tesoro, Scott Frank

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