Why “The Queen’s Gambit” Netflix should be your next binge

Why “The Queen’s Gambit” Netflix should be your next binge
Why “The Queen’s Gambit” Netflix should be your next binge
Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel “The Queen’s Gambit” about a female chess wonder has become a mini-series that premieres on Netflix on Friday. It’s a sports story, a coming-of-age story, and a story becoming human, and also some kind of mortal version of that popular modern genre, the inner workings of a superhero, and the first thing to say about it is that it is very good – thoughtful, exciting, entertaining. Tevis was also the author of the pool novel “The Hustler”, its sequel “The Color of Money” and the science fiction parable “The Man Who Fell Felled”. “The Queen’s Gambit” sits as a mathematician among them sports novel with a scary heroine.

In terms of screen, it’s also something of a cross between “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” – a lovingly decorated historical piece that spans the late 1950s to the 1960s and involves a young woman who triumphed in it What at that time was regarded as the game of humans – and “A beautiful spirit” as an attempt to concretely represent the functioning of an unusual intelligence that lives abstractly.

The second thing to say about it is that it is pretty much true to its source material. For the usual purposes of presentation, some minor characters have been changed and main characters have been expanded, but nothing out of the spirit of the story. Only a few of Tevis’ scenes are missing, and almost all of his dialogue is spoken in the miniseries developed by Scott Frank (“Get Shorty”, “The Wolverine”) and Allan Scott (“Don’t Look Now”). ) and written and directed by Frank. And much of what is not spoken aloud in the text of the novel is also converted into speech.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it is about chess as chess; It is almost bold to make a series in which two people at a table take part in the main dramatic action, moving small carved pieces of wood, striking a clock, and taking notes. No one is murdered except metaphorically, in tournament play, or physically assaulted, or even sexually molested, which, given the premise, is a bit surprising and refreshing among the garish gimmicks that make up so much of contemporary television.

Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomas Brodie-Sangster play friends and rivals in Netflix’s chess drama “The Queen’s Gambit,” based on the novel by Walter Tevis.


Beth Harmon (played by Isla Johnston in her teenage years and Anya Taylor-Joy in her teenage years) becomes a star so quickly and clearly that everyone bows to her; Her size is never in question, nor is Superman’s ability to jump tall buildings with bare hands in a single jump or change the course of mighty rivers, and she is narrated almost from the time she played the game by the caretaker orphanage she lives in (Bill Camp, gruff but tender) learns that she is “amazing” and “maybe the best ever”.

In the second episode, Beth is adopted and, despite some mutual misunderstandings, finds an ally in her new mother (Marielle Heller as Alma Wheatley), a mutually supportive, mutually exploitative relationship in which Frank made sure we see the warmth – few physical connections that register enormously. (I would watch this cough, Ms. W.)

While Beth will fight or give in to alcohol and drugs – a recurring theme in Tevis’ Fiction and Life – starting with the sedatives she was feeding at the orphanage, a sort of junior “one flew over the cuckoo’s nest” situation. While it’s key to the story, it’s a little less convincing on the screen than the chess because addiction is harder to play than focus or easier to override and maybe because it’s something we’ve seen many times in the talking pictures. There are some intoxicated camera angles and movement in the standard edition, and we see Beth Pot smoking and dancing to “Along Comes Mary” by the Association, drinking wine from a bottle, and dancing to “Venus” by Shocking Blue. (She appears to have stolen her lead singer’s look when she arrives hungover and heavily made up for a match the next morning.)

As for chess, it is of course a compressed version of the game. There is a passage in the book where it takes Beth an hour to move around with her eyes closed, and there is no way to get her on screen without the audience leaving the room to cook dinner or one Car or whatever to buy. But even if the piece moves quickly, there is stillness and calm, and Frank usually holds back until the finale, when he lets everything tear up. And even if Frank pulls out some old Hollywood effects or surgically inserts a bunch of cornball dialogues (“We weren’t orphans, not while we were together”), it works.

Isla Johnston as a young Beth learns chess from Mr. Shaibel of Bill Camp in “The Queen’s Gambit”.


Whatever I elaborate on here in the name of thoroughness, I was involved from start to finish; There are chess and human games, and I was physically aware of Beth’s losses and victories in both respects. The fact that you feel protective of the character has something to do with the fact that, as a consistently victorious phenomenon, she herself is an outsider to the end and has a lot to do with the authority of the performances of the well-suited actresses who play them.

Johnston, reserved and determined, is believably obsessed with the game and good at it. (The whole game of chess seems authentically safe, at least for a layman with no talent for the game.) With her wide-open eyes and triangular face, Taylor-Joy has something appropriately extraterrestrial in her expression, but she manages that otherworldly lack of affect, which we associate with intensely focused people – as it is portrayed on television and in the films anyway – with recognizable human warmth; She is a personable, self-responsible figure. (The flashbacks Frank adds to “explain” them aren’t really necessary, nor are the interpolated suggestions of a Life magazine reporter that “creativity and psychosis often go hand in hand – or genius and insanity. “)

Other hands will help her along the way, especially orphan colleague Jolene (Moses Ingram), a voice of experience and proportions, and US champion Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), extravagantly unconventional in a cowboy hat and duster with a knife on his belt. Perhaps best known for playing Liam Neeson’s little boy in Love, Actually, Brodie-Sangster looks strangely identical 17 years later, only with a tousled beard and mustache sprawled out. (There’s some love interest along the way, but love is ultimately less interesting than chess.) The idea is that we’re better as a team, but in the end we’re still alone in front of the board.

“The Queen’s Gambit”

Where: Netflix

When: Anytime from Friday

Rating: TV-MA (may not be suitable for children under 17 years of age)

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