“The Queen’s Gambit” centers on the story of Beth Harmon portrayed in an outstanding manner by Golden Globe winner Anya Taylor-Joy (Last Night in Soho). Harmon is orphaned, after her mother Alice (Chloe Pirrie), commits suicide. She will turn out, as it is soon learned by the viewer, to be a chess prodigy. As she gets older, she makes it her goal in life to become the world champion of chess. Throughout her journey, as Harmon navigates the largely male dominated world of amateur and professional chess, she deals with alcohol and pill addiction, as well as painful personal loss, none of which is glossed over. Part of what makes the series interesting to watch, was wondering if Harmon was going to squander her gift by succumbing to the destructive elements of her nature.
The series’ first episode, and a portion of its second, deals with Harmon’s life at Methuen, an all female Christian orphanage in Kentucky. She lives there during the late 1950s and the early part of the 1960s, before she is adopted by Allston and Alma Wheatley, played by Patrick Kennedy and Marielle Heller (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood). As the series progresses, Alma will wind up becoming, not so much a traditional maternal figure, but a strong ally in Harmon’s quest for chess greatness.
During Harmon’s scenes in the orphanage, and on the occasions when she’s an adult and has a flashback, the character is played by Isla Johnston (Invasion), and, or Annabeth Kelly. Harmon makes a friend in the orphanage named Jolene, a role acted by Moses Ingram, who received an Emmy nomination for her work on the series. Jolene is, and will be, an important person in Harmon’s life. The most important individual in her life, however, comes in the form of the unlikely, reticent, Mr. Shaibel, Methuen’s janitor. The part is acted by Emmy nominee Bill Camp (The Night Of). Through sheer coincidence, Harmon takes the board erasers down to the basement to clean them off, and discovers Shaibel playing chess. She is curious and wants to learn how to play, but at first he rebukes her by telling her that girls don’t play chess. She keeps going down to the basement, in hopes that he will change his mind, and eventually, thanks to her persistence, he does. This opens up a new world for Harmon, one that she takes to with tremendous enthusiasm. For example, she lays awake at night, imagining that the ceiling is a giant chess board, on which she practices games until she drifts off to sleep.
After enough games, in which Shaibel has accessed Harmon’s superior skills, he decides it is time for her to branch out. He organizes a game between Harmon and Mr. Ganz (Jonjo O’Neill). Ganz is an excellent chess player and teaches the game at the local high school. After the two play, Ganz invites Harmon to a competition at the school. She will simultaneously play the entire high school chess club. Harmon has no trouble besting all of the players. From there, she moves onto state wide competitions, which will be the catalyst for her competing internationally. In order to achieve the goal that she has set out for herself, Harmon will need to beat the seemingly invincible World Champion, Russian, Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski).
While Harmon experiences sexism from a number of the men she encounters, who are astounded that a woman could play chess at such a phenomenal level, there are those who appreciate her gifts. Throughout her journey, Harmon receives help and mentoring from men, who want to see her succeed. Those individuals include, but are not limited to, Kentucky State Champion, Harry Beltik, a role acted by Harry Melling, who is well known to fans of the Harry Potter films in which he played the character Dudley Dursley. The conceited, but very talented, Benny Watts, is portrayed by Emmy nominee Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Love Actually). He always sports a full length leather jacket and black hat. In addition, there is D.L. Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), who from the outset treated Harmon with respect and as an equal peer.
“The Queen’s Gambit” was created by two time Oscar nominee Scott Frank (Logan), and BAFTA nominee Allan Scott (Regeneration). The two creators won Emmys for their work on the series for Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series. The drama is based on the novel of the same name written by Walter Tevis, which was published by Random House on October 1, 1983. In addition to Tevis teaching at Ohio University for a number of years, three of Tevis’ novels were made into films: “The Hustler” (1961), “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976), and “The Color of Money” (1986). The seven episodes that comprise the “Queen’s Gambit” series was released on Netflix on October 23, 2020.
The cast was uniformly excellent, and the story was both immersive and inspiring. The editing of the scenes, by Emmy winner Michelle Tesoro (House of Cards), especially those pertaining to the playing of chess during the major competitions, was well executed. Tesoro’s editing, combined with the cinematography by Emmy winner Steven Meizler (The OA), helped to transform scenes that might normally have come across as dull, but instead, they captured the right amount of tension and intrigue to keep a viewer interested. Furthermore, the score for the series, composed by two time Emmy winner Carlos Rafael Rivera (Hacks), aided in advancing the narrative, so no one scene ever came across as stagnant.
I’ve seen Anya Taylor-Joy in a number of performances. She’s already won the Golden Globe, and in addition to other awards of note that she’s either won, or been nominated for, such as the BAFTA and Emmy, I am of the opinion that she has Oscar gold in her future. If I am wrong, and she never receives a golden statute from the academy, so be it, but I feel that she’s too good a talent to not rise to that level one day in the future. In closing, “The Queen’s Gambit” is a binge worthy series that I highly recommend.