What is said to be a story about a young chess prodigy, is really so much more in The Queens Gambit. It is a story of addiction, loss, tragedy and a young woman finding herself in a part of society that in the 1950s was still heavily dominated by men.
Drawn from the 1983 coming-of-age novel of the same name by Walter Tevis, the Netflix series created by Allan Scott and Scott Frank, quietly debuted in October and has since garnered a strong and positive response for its delicate handling of such material.
The story centres on the character of Elizabeth Harmon and begins with a horrific accident, which leaves the young girl as an orphan. The narrative then follows as Harmon continues to mature, all the while fuelled by an insatiable desire to become the world’s number one chess player.
The Queens Gambit is not one to shy away from contradictions and fraught terrain, as from a young age, we watch as Harmon forms an addiction to prescribe medication – the type as we are led to believe were given to children in orphanages as standard practice in those days. As Harmon grows into a young woman her battles with addiction only become all the more damaging, to the point where she believes that without them she could no longer win at chess.
Played by acclaimed actress Anya Taylor-Joy, there is a moody, gothic sensibility to her delivery, a powerful performance of the type that says more in the moments between words, than perhaps in any moment of dialogue. So good is Taylor-Joy that the question must be asked, would this series be anywhere near as good without her?
The rest of the cast are adequate, but really are only there in supporting roles. Shaibel, the janitor (played By Bill Camp) is another particularly memorable character, who introduces a young Harmon to the game and continues to teach her in the basement of the orphanage until which time she is adopted out to a family, a situation that as quickly as it is introduced, deteriorates.
As a metaphor for the Cold War which begun in 1947, Harmon’s final chess tournament, against USSR Grandmaster Vasily Borgov at the 1968 Moscow Invitational is played to great success. There is a subtle almost flirtatious danger to the interactions between Harmon and her Russian competitors.
If anything, and despite The Queens Gambit making no qualms about being based on a fictitious story, what makes the narrative a little less compelling is the relative ease in which Harmon ascends to the position of Grand Master. Is it at all plausible that this young player fails to lose a single game until much later in the series? Perhaps not. In fact, this sense of dodging disaster becomes a little more taxing with every episode. Yet in absence, the series continues to build a palpable sense of tension.
Historical dramas on Netflix are of course a dime a dozen, but The Queens Gambit not only possesses a level of commitment to the period of history in which it is set but in extension a level of execution that other Netflix series only aspire to. As Harmon’s life unfolds so to does the colour palate expand, the sets become more lavish, and it shakes off much of the darkness of early episodes. Of particular brilliance are scenes in which Beth is left alone, and in her imagination the ceiling above her turns into a large chess set on which she plots her next winning moves.
All in all, The Queens Gambit as a chess story and a series is sexy, slick and full of pleasures.