Based on the novel by Walter Tevis, THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (Netflix) is a series about a young woman who becomes a chess champion during the Cold War era. I found it a surprisingly delightful watch, particularly the way the game of chess is portrayed.
The story begins with a very young Elizabeth Harmon orphaned in an auto accident and sent to an orphanage, where she is fed Jesus and tranquilizers in a home that is caring but unloving. After discovering the surly janitor playing chess by himself in his basement office, she decides she wants to try it, and she’s a prodigy. Finally adopted as a teenager, she ends up in an unhappy home that is breaking up, though she bonds with her new mom as she enters and begins winning chess tournaments.
This takes her on a path to the top, where she must confront her demons–her mother’s death and mental illness, her difficulty forming relationships, and her addictions that she believes are the source of her talent–before confronting the Soviet master Borgov in a game that will decide who can call themselves the world champion of chess.
This is feel-good stuff that goes at its own pace, punctuated by thrilling wins that arrive in cathartic fashion after numerous setbacks. With her exotic beauty, Anya Taylor-Joy is riveting as the adult Beth Harmon. The depiction of the 60s is stylish and engaging. The chess games are tense and accurate, and I loved the numerous debates over strategy and approach. One might think sexism would be an overriding part of the show, but it isn’t, and it was great to see the great men who played chess applaud Beth because they recognized and respected her talent. Beth’s biggest obstacle is instead her past, which makes her an interesting and insular personality, admirable for the way she doesn’t give a crap what anybody thinks, though somewhat aloof and at times hard to root for. To win, she’ll have to confront that past to win without chemical help and truly connect with people.
I had a few complaints, though they’re somewhat minor. The resolution and addiction stuff took a bit long near the end, though it was necessary. My biggest complaint is I wish the chess games were shown a little more clearly so we could “play along,” but there’s enough to respect the game in what is a straight-up drama, not a sports drama. Apparently, the chess master Kasparov played a role in the show as a consultant, and it showed.
Overall, I loved it and I’m happy to recommend this one.