Movie Review: “The Queen’s Gambit”

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Netflix’s newest hit mini-series, “The Queen’s Gambit,” was released Oct. 23, but is just now rising in popularity. An unlikely smash hit, the show has captured audiences through the life of Beth Harmon and her learned mastery of one of the world’s oldest games: chess.

Based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name, “The Queen’s Gambit,” set in the United States during the vibrant ‘60s, opens to a young Beth Harmon, orphaned at age nine and taken in by an all-girls orphanage. She meets Mr. Shaibel, the orphanage’s janitor, who teaches her the game of chess and discovers her natural talent for the game. The rest of the series follows Beth on her rise to fame as she joins the professional circuit and goes up against some of the greatest chess players of the time and around the world. But her journey isn’t easy. Riddled with addiction and self-discovery, Beth finds herself in the spotlight while struggling to hold herself together. 

Anya Taylor-Joy, a new face to most, takes the lead as Beth, with her performance backed by an ensemble of actors. Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Benny Watts), well known for his roles in “Game of Thrones” and “The Maze Runner” and Harry Melling, Dudley from the Harry Potter series, take important roles as two well-established chess players. They are at first Beth’s competition but later become her friends. Bill Camp plays Mr. Shaibel and Moses Ingram plays Jolene, Beth’s greatest friends during her time in the orphanage. The series was led by director and creator Scott Frank, known for his work on the 2017 mini-series “Godless,” as well as co-creator Allan Scott.

Having masterful actors is one thing, but without beautifully crafted characters, there’s not much the actors can do. Luckily, “The Queen’s Gambit” has both. Beth is a wonderful heroine to watch on screen. She’s real and lovable, leaving you rooting for her through every win and sharing in her devastation after each loss. Taylor-Joy brings the character to life through the screen, every move perfectly planned to craft Beth Harmon into someone you feel as if you could share a cup of tea with. Benny Watts, my personal favorite character, is a U.S. chess star and an important factor in Beth’s life. Benny is an interesting character, his wild-west influenced persona making him hard to figure out. But he quickly becomes lovable, and his place in the show one that couldn’t have been taken by any other character or played by any other actor. 

Given that the series is only seven episodes but spans most of Beth’s young life into her twenties, the storyline is fast-moving yet doesn’t feel rushed. The beginning episodes capture Beth’s first interactions with the world of chess, and their pace feels slower than the later episodes. Once Beth reaches her teenage years, every episode features beautifully shot chess matches while also developing the characters, Beth especially. Each episode feels as if it is building up to something until the last episode, arguably the best in the entire series. It feels like a masterclass, every scene adding to the tension of the story with heartwarming sequences sprinkled in the middle. While I would recommend the entire series, I would say that if you’re not sure how to feel about it in the middle, holding out until the last episode makes the seven hours spent watching completely worth it. 

While mostly set in the U.S. in various cities as Beth travels for tournaments, the series also features time in other countries such as France and Mexico and ultimately ends in Russia. Although, the series was actually filmed both in Berlin and Ontario. Each location is beautifully shot and the aesthetic of the ‘60s is prevalent throughout. As far as costume design, Beth sports an array of beautiful outfits to make you fall in love with the fashion of the era. Beth is an aesthetic of her own with fire red hair and a closet full of immaculate dresses. From beginning to end, the series is one to watch if for nothing else but the fashion and the scenery.

While the series follows Beth as the main character, chess feels like a character of its own. When I started “The Queen’s Gambit” I knew absolutely nothing about chess, so I was worried that I would have a hard time following the story. However, my worries were for nothing. The chess matches are extremely satisfying and fun to watch as the actors are actually playing the matches. There have been many movies and shows throughout the years featuring chess, but for some reason, this show proved its ability to re-energize interest in the game. After the release of the series, sales of chess sets increased. Even I found myself digging up our old chess boards and nagging my dad to teach me to play. Let’s just say, the show makes the game look much easier to learn than it really is.

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