Netflix UK TV review: The Queen’s Gambit
Brendon Connelly | On 28, Oct 2020
Judging only from what’s on screen, and knowing very little about the original novel by The Man Who Fell to Earth author Walter Tevis, Scott Frank’s lavish miniseries about a troubled chess genius seems very well adapted to its Netflix niche. This applies right down to the unusual, particular number and shape of its episodes – the show clocks in at seven parts of varying lengths, the longest one 45 per cent longer than the shortest.
This expanded running time obviously allows both depth and texture, and a structure that, despite the obvious place for chessboard showdowns at the heart of the story, keeps some distance from a basic Rocky-with-Rooks sports movie. There are moments of joy and triumph in this tale, and the overall trend might be rags-to-riches, but rather than being a straight-up, punch-the-air underdog story, The Queen’s Gambit is at great pains to portray its protagonist, orphaned prodigy turned chess superstar Beth Harmon, as both David and Goliath. Thankfully, there’s ample airspace here for a necessarily detailed character portrait, and plenty of dramatic self-defeat on the way to the big climax.
There are also plenty of set-pieces, including a number of well-paced, usually tense (though regrettably gimmick-strapped) and visually off-putting chess games. There’s so much chess needed to tell this story that the amount of gameplay would clog up a three-hour-plus movie but, balanced across this seven-part series, the distribution of matches seems just about right.
Having discrete episodes also proves to be a structural gift to writer-director Frank. He uses the breaks between instalments to get his themes in order, to time out his rising and falling action, and to keep everything moving towards the next dramatic pinch point or reversal of fortunes. On paper, this story is quite splendidly told throughout – but Frank’s best impulses as a director are actually his most writerly ones. He gives us clear beats that are boldly stated and vividly designed but the pasted-on wallpaper of baroque imagery and visual conceits, which largely seem intended to spice up the chess sequences and more supposedly cerebral moments, betray an unnecessary lack of confidence in the underlying drama.
It’s not that Frank hit the skids when he closed his typewriter case and turned from writer to director. Far from it. For one thing, the film is extremely well cast. Anya Taylor-Joy is both technically expert – she’s never out of touch with the lens, always convincing as a chess player – and eminently likeable, which is crucial for a character with so many moments of transparent torment.
As portrayed here, Beth Harmon (Harmon – not quite Harmony) is both the heroine and villain of her own story. Scenes where she obsessively, compulsively plays both sides of a chess game in her mind work as an obvious microcosm for her entire conflict. But which side will win? The genius who can make her way in the world through intelligence, strategy and acuity, or the addict who won’t give her own mind a break?
Portentous images of chess games are long since played-out and there are plenty of clichéd metaphors that could have easily sunk this show, but Scott is always smart enough to use the game as an avenue to drama, not just a grab-bag of symbols. Ultimately, this is a series about genius, and a particular kind of pained genius at that – which might mean some audiences find it quite remote. In order to succeed, then, Frank needs his show to tap directly into the viewers’ empathy (Taylor-Joy makes this all but inevitable) and use the chess club settings as a way to create conflict in the protagonist, not to simply swamp her in quasi-meaningful imagery. By and large, he does a fantastic job.
There’s ultimately little in the way of new insight here, but the show’s portrayals of addiction, alienation and brilliance are never feigned. The Queen’s Gambit is a thoroughly well-crafted show for the most part; it’s a real shame about the unwanted flim-flam around the chess matches, which would have been utterly compelling in their own right.
The Queen’s Gambit is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.