I rarely watch television, and have never covered a limited series before, but after watching Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, I felt compelled to. It isn’t often that professional chess is represented in new media. Being a former tournament player and ongoing enthusiast, it is nice to see something like this hit the mainstream. It borrows lots from the story of Bobby Fischer, and sometimes directly takes from movies about him (like Pawn Sacrifice), but is a truly moving story that you ought to pay attention to.
It follows Elizabeth Harmon, who is made an orphan at age nine. At her orphanage, she discovers the game of chess, and is secretly taught how to play by the janitor who discovers in turn that she has a very special gift. All the while, the girls are given a very dangerous drug to keep them docile and in-line. Beth develops a liking for these pills and gets carried away. The series sees her from childhood to young adulthood. By the time she is a teenager she is adopted, and despite several odds, she is able to start a very successful chess career, but the sentence of addiction always looms about her.
Like I said, the story is very compelling, but one thing this series suffers from is horrible dialogue. Scott Frank has a keen eye for the bigger picture, but the individual character interactions left a lot to be desired. While there is a fine understanding of the game of chess and its history displayed, a lot of language is lazily thrown around in an attempt to make the actors seem much more knowledgeable than they are. The games that Harmon plays throughout the series, however, are dramatized in an interesting way that hasn’t really been done in film. In addition to that, the games that were invented for the series draw from some really beautiful ideas of chess antiquity.
The performances were generally sub-par. Harry Melling was the only supporting character that had the chops to make an impact. Anya Taylor-Joy on the other hand controls the screen the entire way. Her acting in this series is divine, even with all the unflattering dialogue she was given. After this, and her charming performance in Emma, I hope we get to see more from her in the future.
The editing was somewhat inspired. I am not sure the incessant use of flashback worked– that is, until the end of the series. At times it felt like a Lifetime picture, but the drama usually wrapped up in a sophisticated way at the close of each episode. The sickly grey/green palette is a bit distracting at times, but with the perfect period set and costume design, it won’t bother you much.
The soundtrack completely tied the series together. The diegesis and non-diegesis mixed so beautifully, and the original score really elevated the climax of the series.
Even if chess isn’t your thing, this series might surprise you. Once you look past the dialogue and the washed out color, the experience is sure to be moving. The Queen’s Gambit is a refreshing limited series, and I hope that Scott Frank has more in store for us. For its original spin on the story of the tortured genius, and its clear love of the game of chess, I give this series a four out of five.
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