By Andrés Muñoz
Compared to other sports around the world, making a movie or a series about chess might seem like a real challenge. How much do you really have to work with, other than two opponents moving pieces across a board? In its latest hit show, The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix teaches a master class on quality content creation. A fictional miniseries covering the life of chess prodigy Beth Harmon, it is based on the novel of the same name written by Walter Tevis.
Set in the 50s and 60s, the series shows Beth’s meteoric rise in the chess world, from learning the game at the age of 9 until facing world champions in her early twenties. All while dealing with her addictions and inner demons.
Well-acted, cleverly shot and superbly written, this is an awesome limited series that will keep you thrilled in more ways than one. Here are some of my thoughts on why you should settle into your sofa and start watching.
The Series Is A Time Capsule
One of the first things that struck me was how well the aesthetic of the time had been crafted. Production designer Uli Hanisch, who worked on the multiple-plots-set-in-different-time-periods epic Cloud Atlas and the visually stunning and chilling Perfume: Story of a Murderer, spares no expense and takes us on a visual journey from an orphanage in the 50s, to a classic postcard of postwar Americana: picket fences, ornate living rooms and general stores.
We later experience the boom of commercial flights in the late 50s, facets of the hippie movement, and even international locations such as Mexico City and Moscow. From the houses and hotels the characters stay in, to the cars they drive and the clothes and accessories they use, the series is a wonderfully immersive experience.
The Story And Characters Are Top-Notch (Light Spoilers Ahead)
The show truly shines in its development and characters, and I daresay that this is one of the benefits of it being a work of fiction. When you have the creative freedom to tell the story from start to finish, a writer has full control of the evolution of the narrative. It is done wonderfully here. Beth’s addiction begins at a very young age, using drugs at night after having played chess with the school’s janitor and imagining and analyzing plays for hours while lying in her bed. By showing us moments where her playing style is linked to her use of pills, the writers foreshadow the two big battles ever present: Beth against her chess opponents and Beth against herself.
As she grows and her universe expands, so do the possibilities, benefits, and even threats of being a superstar prodigy. Chess is yet another sport mostly ruled by men, so introducing a story that has an empowered woman dominating the scene is extremely refreshing.
But while Beth is very much in control of many facets of her life like her dedication to the game and her relationships with others, she also struggles with her own insecurities and character flaws. She is a truly human character that has a vast array of emotions. Add to that a performance by Anya-Taylor Joy that has been reviewed by critics as nothing less than exceptional, astonishing, and magnetic, you’ll be wishing there were more episodes in this 7-part series.
The supporting cast also helps dispel the age-old chess film/TV generalisation of two men in suits and glasses playing behind a USA vs USSR Cold Waresque thematic backdrop. The viewer will find characters that do not fit this mould, keeping the story interesting, original, and fresh.
The Actual Sport And Its Real-Life Inspirations
The producers of the series made sure to show an accurate portrayal of the game of chess, down to the last piece and movement. Scott Frank, the show’s creator, contacted chess coach, expert, and film consultant Bruce Pandolfini, to create over 300 different games just for the series. He studied with the actors the games for each scene, practising how to properly handle the pieces, react to plays, and observe as a professional player would.
Even ex-World champion Garry Kasparov was contacted to serve as an adviser, specifically for the world-class events, and all things related to chess in Russia. He was able to provide valuable pointers to enhance even more the show’s authenticity.All in all, The Queen’s Gambit is a highly enjoyable watch. It has an intimate and compelling narrative that has been produced with care and shows a powerful female lead absolutely killing it in a male-dominated setting. With fantastic settings, story, and cast, and a very faithful portrayal of the mechanics behind the game under which the plot orbits, it’s a great addition to your binge-worthy shows of 2020.