French artist-provocateur turned semi-professional chess player Marcel Duchamp once remarked that “while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.” If the imaginative and perceptive protagonist of Netflix’s new seven-part miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit” is any indication, American writer, director, and producer Scott Frank and co-creator Allan Scott share Duchamp’s sentiments. Adapted from Walter Tevis’ 1983 bildungsroman of the same name, the show is not a treacly melodrama; instead, it is a reinvigorated variation of a sports narrative, the sport being chess and the athlete being fictional chess prodigy Beth Harmon (embodied by the exceptional Anya Taylor-Joy). Taylor-Joy is supported by a stellar cast whose refined performances and superb chemistry present a convincing look into the 1960s chess scene. Despite being centered around an occasionally dull game, “The Queen’s Gambit” is unfailingly thrilling, endearing, smart, and — somehow — a bit sexy.
When audiences first meet Beth, however, her life is void of allure. She begins her story in the late 1950s as a nine-year-old Kentucky orphan who is exposed to the intricacies of chess through her orphanage’s custodian (Bill Camp). Quickly, but not surprisingly, her prowess as a chess player increases, eventually allowing her to join the international chess circuit as a teenager. She is accompanied by her alcoholic adoptive mother Mrs. Wheatley (Marielle Heller), who is entranced by the profitability of her daughter’s natural talent and the prospect of replacing her lonely life in suburbia for one of luxury.
It is through Beth’s effortless global defeats of men twice her age that her prestige and celebrity grow, in some cases garnering attention and fondness from her challengers. What her admirers and male interests aren’t aware of is that as she fights against seasoned cognoscenti for world chess domination, she battles another opponent in private: addiction to the tranquilizers her orphanage used to dispense to the kids.
But “The Queen’s Gambit” is not a tragic tale about addiction and overcoming adversity. Although Frank’s rich teleplay examines Beth, her birth mother, and Mrs. Wheatley’s substance abuse issues as well as the former’s extreme preoccupation with chess, the series is by no means drab or somber. Of course, there are periods of vulnerability, doubt, and desolation. Beth struggling to reconcile herself to the deaths of those closest to her is a heartbreaking image to behold. But Frank’s expert interpretation of the source material presents audiences with a balanced portrait of Beth’s complicated life — he includes moments of levity between Beth and her chess acquaintances; illustrates explorations of intimacy and sexual identity; and provides insight into successful and failed relationships, both familial and nonfamilial. “The Queen’s Gambit” explores every path in Beth’s narrative trajectory, and the complexities that layer upon one another as the series progresses make for a tremendously electrifying viewing experience.
In fact, the power of the show lies in Frank’s ability to build characters who are dynamic, organic, and raw. No character, perhaps with the exception of Beth’s training partner and former competitor Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), is completely likable and flawless. Beth, in particular, is initially unfriendly, quiet, and difficult to engage with. Over the course of seven episodes, though, Beth changes, challenging audience members’ preconceptions and predictions. This is precisely what makes the show so captivating. Frank replaces consistent and static characters with those who have story arcs that are elaborate and unexpected. Better yet, almost no role is overlooked, ensuring that Beth’s voice is not the only one amplified.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about every character. At times, “The Queen’s Gambit” falls short, especially in relation to race and gender. While Frank does not center race and gender in the series, he moves a pawn to another square but fails to execute the play well. The series hints at the respective significance of race and gender but merely through superfluous dialogue. Take, for example, Beth’s Black childhood friend Jolene, who points out that she won’t be adopted because she’s Black, or Beth — who appears unfazed by the rampant sexism in the chess community — never explicity attributing the discrimination she faces to her gender. In both cases, no further examination or response is made. If “The Queen’s Gambit” wanted to depict strong, well-rounded roles, then the teleplay would have benefited from additional social commentary by Beth and Jolene.
Still, in spite of its missteps in critically discussing race and gender, “The Queen’s Gambit” is largely rewarding. Although the show may have managed better with quicker pacing and fewer episodes and drawn-out storylines, its tonality and visual language is so stunning that the extra hours are a gift. The effect of Beth’s tale is nuanced by elements of the production such as the pensive and eerie score, which soars in the right places, effectively raising the stakes in turbulent chess sequences by subtly hinting at the competitor’s interior tactics as they attack and retreat.
Building on the precision of the orchestration are the impressive visual effects and costume designs. Recurring segments of Beth imagining moving oversized chess pieces on the ceiling are breathtakingly translated for the screen. Similar attention to detail is directed toward the hair, wig, makeup, and costume design, which not only transports audiences to the 1960s, but also transforms according to the character’s distinctive developmental arcs. Namely, the silhouette, texture, and color palette of Beth’s rich outfits metamorphose as the show progresses, offsetting the muted cinematic look and making for a mesmerizing visual treat. From Beth’s iconic coiffed hair and Benny Watts’ Western style to floating pawns, “The Queen's Gambit” never misses a play in terms of production design.
Shockingly, what is most enthralling about “The Queen’s Gambit” are the chess scenes, which are not only beautifully and engrossingly shot, but also gripping. Several are sad, while others are amusing and in rare instances, sensual. What links each scene together is the essence it conveys: Beth is the artist and the chess board is her canvas. Just as she is drawn into the world of chess time and time again, “The Queen’s Gambit” draws the viewer into Beth’s world through the exhilarating maneuvers of the game.