Review by C.J. Bunce
If you play D&D, love video or board games, if you consider yourself a gamer or you like to compete at all for fun, drop everything and watch The Queen’s Gambit right now, streaming on Netflix. Chess may not be your game, but it doesn’t matter. The writer of The Hustler created a heckuva story and character in orphan prodigy Beth Harmon, and the 1960s tale perfectly translates to 2020. Harmon is a quick-witted, fast-thinking, intense young girl, taking the driver’s seat, she becomes a smart young woman in a parallel type of world to The Hustler’s pool hall, where she competes and wins against Bobby Darin-era boys and middle-aged men in tweeds. Adapted by one of the best screen writers around, Scott Frank, writer of the movies Logan, The Wolverine, Minority Report, Malice, Dead Again, and the similar-themed Little Man Tate, and also director of the series–don’t skip this because a series about chess may sound boring to you.
Beth Harmon is only nine years old when her mother is killed in a car wreck. She’s sent to the Methuen Home, an orphanage for girls where she meets an older girl named Jolene, and a quiet, odd janitor named Mr. Schaibel (played by 12 Years a Slave, Joker, Reversal of Fortune actor Bill Camp). While cleaning the chalkboard erasers she finds the only focus in her life thus far: he plays chess, and she is soon learning how to play, quickly surpassing the skill of Mr. Schaibel. He brings in the local chess coach from the high school and the city and soon the wider world becomes aware of her talent for the game. But she doesn’t play by talent alone. The orphanage requires the girls take tranquilizers, which she pockets on Jolene’s advice and saves them for the night, where in the dark she is able to visualize chess on her ceiling, and she plays and replays every move over and over, perfecting her understanding of the game.
Over the course of the series Harmon (as her friends call her) lacks the typical 1960s family guidance. She has no typical mentors, whether on coming of age life issues any girl faces, or good advice on drugs or boys or fashion or friends. But Harmon finds her own way, despite what anyone else would see as obstacles. She knows no different, so those barriers don’t serve as barriers for her, and in the case of an adoptive mother when Harmon turns 15, she can leverage them. At 16 she is playing competitively on the international circuit.
Intertwined with era music, the training montage scenes are inspired and unique. It’s Rocky, but ever so stylish, mixing 1960s locations and setting (maybe dated to some today, but retro awesomeness to the rest of us) with the allure of the modern gaming phenomenon. Just as you’re sure the fourth episode is the year’s best single hour of television, the fifth episode is even better. Then in episode six the scope and artful writing of Walter Tevis–author of The Hustler and The Color of Money–elevates the total experience to something even bigger. Think Robert Luketic’s Vegas high-stakes card game movie 21, and you’ll be on track.
In the first episode Harmon is played by young Isla Johnston, who creates this very serious and determined girl who doesn’t allow herself to be derailed by circumstance. In the second episode rising genre favorite Anya Taylor-Joy steps into her shoes seamlessly, slowly building this layered, ever-changing, ever-growing character from lost girl to savvy young woman over six and a half stunning hours. Harmon is a breakout, strong young woman you’re likely to remember. This is a performance bigger than Taylor-Joy’s more marketable work in Split and Glass and The New Mutants. She shows a discipline, an ability to take over a scene, sometimes with as little as a shift of the eyes. Some of the credit is owed to cinematographer Steven Meizler (Munich, Jerry Maguire) who knows exactly what glares, blinks, yawns, glances, and smiles to catch, and seems to have chosen the perfect take every time.
Subordinate to Harmon’s story of inner growth is the Cold War conflict between America and Russia, adding a heart-pounding space race feel. Tournament games include coordination and manipulation by Russian players, led by the master player Vasily Borgov, played by Marcin Dorocinski (Anthropoid), the very picture of all Harmon fears. Harmon, for the most part, is by herself in the game, but her support team includes Henry Melling, one of the best actors of his generation in the Harry Potter series, His Dark Materials, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Game of Thrones, Doctor Who) as the cocky top U.S. player, Moses Ingram (the Coens’ Macbeth) as best pal Jolene, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd (Medici) as a local journalist, and as Harmon’s adoptive mother the smartly cast 1950s face Marielle Heller, known best for directing A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. For genre fans, note both Brodie-Sangster and Fortune-Lloyd had small roles in the third Star Wars trilogy and appeared together in BBC’s mega-Brit showcase Wolf Hall.
The music, the clothes, the cars, and the towns, from small town Kentucky to New York, then Paris, and finally the championships in Moscow all glow. The set pieces of Uli Hanisch (A Hologram for the King) and Ingeborg Heineman (Inglourious Basterds, Valkyrie) and costumes of Gabriele Binder (Never Look Away) rival and often surpass the best of the incredible historical re-creations in Amazon Studio’s The Man in the High Castle, the last great genre drama with the total package of this series. And Carlos Rafael Rivera′s six hours of shifting vibe soundtrack is the stuff of Academy Award winners, every episode moving from one mood to the next and ever-building to the final tournament match. The pop songs included are a survey of 1960s music, used much like in those grand, epic historical dramas like Forrest Gump, including key scenes tied to The Vogues’ You’re the One, Herman’s Hermits’ The End of the World, The Association’s Along Comes Mary, Peggy Lee’s Fever, The Monkees’ I’m Not You’re Stepping Stone, and Shocking Blue’s Venus.
It’s a coming of age story, so expect some mature themes, adult language, shoplifting, and sex as a topic, and drug use and abuse as a major theme, although nothing here is R-rated material.
By way of trivia, the rights to the novel were at one point tapped for a feature film which was to be the directorial debut of Heath Ledger, who died shortly thereafter. Surprisingly, although this adaptation feels completely contemporary, Walter Tevis published the novel in 1983, and considered writing a sequel. He died in 1984. The novel is billed as suspense thriller and psychological thriller. So don’t mistake this adaptation for another bland drama.
Don’t miss it. It’s one of the best series of 2020. Watch The Queen’s Gambit, streaming now on Netflix.