Moving a piece doesn’t matter if you don’t know what’s behind it.
A work of fiction based (loosely) on some Chess mainstays, Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy), orphaned in a car wreck, is delivered to exactly what popular culture has taught us mid-20th Century orphanages look like. Befriending the janitor (Bill Camp) who teaches her the game, it fast becomes an obsession dominating Beth’s life as she rapidly advances through the ranks.
That’s the story. The plot tries to be everything and offers little, but let’s start with the good things.
Anya Taylor-Joy, arguably the fastest-rising minor star in Hollywood, is reliably excellent; her detached, distinctive air and appearance lending Harmon both the gravitas and jarring tone the character was intended to exude whenever she’s in a room with someone else where by consequence one or another feels like they don’t belong. Camp and Marrielle Heller are the most memorable of these seven hours’ many supporting characters, the latter well-imparting Harmon’s foster mother.
Harry Melling (Dudley from Harry Potter) and Isla Johnston (depicting Beth’s early years) manage a lot with relatively bland roles as written in spite of their screen time, while Thomas Brodie-Sangster looks horridly out of place as a knife-wielding leather-clad swagger-filled Chess mate. Marcin Dorocinski continues in Hollywood’s long tradition of casting Eastern European actors as Russians; rest assured they are in play.
The visualisations of chess to the show’s great credit are very well done; opting to represent Harmon’s patterns of thought on varied ceilings as she stares upward – only one of the elements herein drawing praise from Chess’ recognisable names. The games are also very good and consistently the best sequences even if, and this is sadly very par for the course in sports recreations, necessarily dense dissections of strategy barely play a part.
Now; to plot. This is a series supposedly about grief, loss of family, the functions of maternal and paternal figures, substance abuse, first and latter loves, sports, obsessions, a grand old love of Chess and amidst all this the Cold War. None of these elements save one and that encompassing Harmon’s relationships with the janitor and her adoptive parents are dealt with substantively and sometimes with nothing greater than lip service; others are flagged as tangents and go nowhere.
Boiling these crucial elements down to a 2+ hour movie could have produced a feature with sustained tension; drawing it out over 7 hours with meandering subplots which the series hastily attempts to summarise at its conclusion begs the question why they were included at all. The romances chronicled herein are interchangeable, the beats broaching drug abuse rote and familiar and you could glean exponentially more about the Cold War watching Rocky IV. Sure audiences are used to seeing stories about young love, tragedy and such – that doesn’t mean we gain anything from seeing it pro forma, far from it.
The Queen’s Gambit does focus in its final moments and the last scene, save the chess visualisations and games, is the series’ very best. Yes it’s very Hollywood but it’s even more sincere and speaks so emphatically to what the series is about even if it needed to do so and to such a greater extent hours earlier.
There’s an irony here that will be evident to anyone who has more than casually played chess. Those who have will know the difference between a player who throws moves out there either for show, because they don’t know what they’re doing, or both, and opponents whose actions are deliberate and crafted to produce a desired outcome. Taylor-Joy’s performative decisions are of the like, the script’s weren’t to match.
The Queen’s Gambit is now streaming on Netflix