QUEEN’S GAMBIT, THE (TV-mini-series)

(director/writer: Scott Frank; screenwriter: Allen Scott-co-creator, novel by Walter Tevis; cinematographer: Steven Meizler; editor: Michelle Tesoro; music: Carlos Rafael Rivera; cast:  Anya Taylor-Joy (Beth Harmon as a teenager), Bill Camp (Mr. Shaibel), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Benny Watts), Russell Dennis Lewis (Mike), Chloe Pirrie (Alice Harmon), Marielle Heller (Alma), Patrick Kennedy (Allston Wheatley), Marcin Dorocinski (Vasily Bogov), Harry Melling (Harry Beltik), Isla Johnston (Beth Harmon as a child), Moses Ingram (Jolene); Runtime: 6 hrs; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Marcus Loges/Mick Aniceto; Netflix; 2020)

“A compelling coming-of-age story on chess that explores also how substance abuse has become such a killer in western society.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This seven-episode Netflix TV mini-series drama aired on October 23, 2020. It was directed by Scott Frank (“Out of Sight”/”Logan”). It’s based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, and is co-written by Frank and Allen Scott. The Queen’s Gambit is a compelling coming-of-age story on chess that also explores how substance abuse has become such a killer in western society. It revels in also exploring how obsessive behavior without checks can tempt you to make the wrong moves.

Beth Harmon (as a child played by Isla Johnston and as a 15-year-old and older by Anya Taylor-Joy) is placed as an eight-year-old in a Christian orphanage in 1958 in Kentucky, after her mom died in a suicidal traffic accident. She makes herself into a chess whiz (a game she learned from the orphanage’s prickly custodian-Bill Camp) while also developing an addiction to tranquilizers that the state prescribed to her as a sedative  (later outlawed). An older Black orphanage girl (Moses Ingram), also a loner, befriends her and points out how the orphanage is mistreating her by giving her these habit forming pills.

Beset by her personal demons, Beth grows up into a glamorous and brilliant teenage outcast who realizes her ticket to success in the world is through chess.

As a teen she’s adopted by a suburban couple from Lexington–Alma (Marielle Heller, a director), a piano player and damaged wife, and her mostly absentee businessman husband, Allston Wheatley (Patrick Kennedy), who agreed to the adoption because he thought it would help his wife cope better with life.

The ambitious Beth is determined to challenge the traditional boundaries in the male-dominated world of competitive chess by competing in tournaments against the men. After winning national and international chess tournaments, the chess prodigy faces in Moscow the legendary Russian champion Vasily Bogov (Marcin Dorocinski). Meanwhile three tournament chess competitors (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, Harry Melling) make a play for the cold-fish chess maven.

The busy teleplay is uplifted by Anya Taylor-Joy’s first-class performance and a really good ensemble cast. It seemed like the film was trying to play a rogue game of chess with the script.

When it comes to chess films I loved “Searching for Bobby Fischer” and was pleased with Satiyajit Ray’s, gentle comedy on British colonialism, “The Chess Players. I thought this “Rocky” like chess film had its rich moments and electric chess sequences to make me forget about its shortcomings. Also, it seemed to keep things authentic in its chess sequences by using chess consultants like the New York City chess coach Bruce Pandolfini and the former world champion Garry Kasparov.

TV Review, Chess, The Queen's Gambit, Anya Taylor-Joy,
      Bill Camp, Scott Frank, Netflix

REVIEWED ON 11/11/2020  GRADE: B +