It’s in the dimly-lit basement of a Kentucky orphanage that Beth Harmon first discovers the 64-square board. Her inquisitive spirit gets the better of the husky Mr. Shaibel, the janitor at Methuen Home for Girls and custodian of this peculiar black-and-white game called “chess.”Beth has never heard such a word. Having grown up in the ‘40s and ‘50s, when it was perfectly legal to feed children doses of tranquilizers (a daily ritual at Methuen), Beth finds refuge in the checkered grid ruled by Queens & Kings and develops a prodigious skill for the sport. The Queen’s Gambit, in riveting fashion, charts Beth’s tumultuous life as she struggles with drug and alcohol use and navigates complex friendships, all the while striving towards her ultimate goal of becoming a world chess champion.
From the smoke-filled high school gymnasiums of Beth’s junior tournaments to the ostentatious floral upholstery of her adoptive parents’ suburban home, the world of the mid-century is immaculately recreated. Googie-inspired decals serve as the backdrop for a Vegas showdown, while a majestic hall hosts the illustrious Moscow Invitational. Beth’s chess journey is externalized not just by Uli Hanisch’s production design, but by meticulous costuming. Gabriele Binder expertly outfitted Beth in a constellation of dresses and coats influenced by the couture maestros and fashionistas of the era, a wardrobe that grows more assured as her gameplay advances.
Anya Taylor-Joy plays Beth with remarkable poise—the Emma and Thoroughbreds alum brings an equanimous physicality to the role that perfectly counterbalances the inherent stasis of chess. Each episode is lensed in an elegant manner befitting our sophisticated protagonist, a deft mix of deep and shallow-focus cinematography letting us take in the rich locales while keeping the potent performances front-and-center. A more naïve director may have placed greater emphasis on the movements of pieces during important games, but, while they rest assured are accurate (grandmaster Garry Kasparov is credited as a consultant), showrunner Scott Frank wisely keeps our eyes on Beth and her opponent; the focal point of the drama is always a human one.
Despite the exceptional attention to authenticity, The Queen’s Gambit doesn’t require any prior knowledge of chess to enjoy. Sure, it may casually throw around fancy opening names like the Sicilian Defence or inundate one with excitable post-game analysis, but it’s all there to bring the distinctive game to the screen as faithfully as possible. Several creative sequences involving colossal imaginary CGI pieces transfigure the cerebral mind puzzles into a thrilling visual format, and a ratcheting editing pace, often timed to the click of a chess clock, heightens the pressure-cooker feel of climactic confrontations.
Much has been said about the show’s keen ear for subversion, with Rachel Syme at The New Yorker highlighting how the narrative “cleverly inverts the myth” of the male chess wizard Bobby Fischer. Although Beth Harmon was not a real person (The Queen’s Gambit originates as a novel of the same name), it’s moving to witness her triumphs in the overwhelmingly male-dominated chess world. Her arc involving recovery, courage, love, family and friendship, brings so many words to mind, but I’ll settle for just one: inspiring. There’s a reason over sixty million users watched the miniseries in its debut month on Netflix. If you have the streaming service, this brilliant show is certainly worth your time.