The Queen’s Gambit – 2020

Written and Directed by Scott Frank
Based on the novel by Walter Tevis
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Bill Camp, Moses Ingram, Isla Johnston, Christiane Seidel, Rebecca Root, Chloe Pirrie, Akemnji Ndifornyen, Marielle Heller, Harry Melling, Patrick Kennedy, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Marcin Dorociński

Walter Tevis died in 1984. His first novel was The Hustler. His last novel was The Color of Money. The novel before this was The Queen’s Gambit. His skill was in showing the distance between talent and skill, with a heavy dose of heart thrown into the mix.

Scott Frank is a two time Oscar nominee for his screenplays for Out of Sight and Logan. He should have been nominated or even won for Get Shorty.

Anya-Taylor Joy just may be the best actress of her generation. She is often the best thing about her films. This series, may be the exception, if only because of the skill of those with whom she is working.

The Queen’s Gambit tells the story of Beth Harmon (Johnson, then Taylor-Joy), who is the product of a “mistake” made by a brilliant, troubled mother. At the age of nine years, she is orphaned and ends up at the Methuen Home for Girls. Life here is not horrible. It isn’t easy, but in all, the people are decent to one another. The number of cliches avoided in even the first episode of this series bodes well for those hoping for a reason to watch all seven parts. Johnson manages to embody the silent pain of a young girl wandering through a rough early life seeking solace in something / anything.

She finds help in unexpected ways. First is fellow (and older) orphan, Jolene (Ingram). She gives Beth advice on the “medicine” they are given daily. Beth takes this advice to an extreme.

Another friend she meets is Mr. Shaibel (Camp), who is the janitor at the school. He plays chess by himself. She asks to play. At first, he refuses. Eventually he relents. This begins the journey of a lifetime.

Beth’s ability to absorb information is incredible. Her curiosity comes naturally, due to her mother’s gifts in math. Her learning is paralleled by a growing addiction to tranquilizers, which helps her to envision more than she thinks it would. The story takes its time building up both her chess skill and the reliance on mind-altering chemicals.

The style Beth uses for chess is an aggressive one. She understands the games and the moves of all of the greats. Fortunately they don’t spend a ton of time describing the minutiae, as it would be hard to digest. We understand the methods, if not every detail.

The best thing about Scott Frank’s script is that, no matter which way the story unfolds, there are no pieces that are easily discarded. No matter how close we come to a standard, throwaway moment, these are full dimensional people who have motives beyond that of Beth, even when they come back into her life. The one character who is not revisited is significant. It’s a moving enough moment to lead Beth to change her destiny.

The story Frank tells through Taylor-Joy is a wonderful, inspiring one. The decision to concentrate on her face, particularly her eyes, is a risky venture for a 7 part series. Fortunately, Taylor-Joy is more than up to the task. She is not one who gives away everything, but she does give enough for us to know how the events could affect her.

If you enjoy Tevis’ earlier meditations on pool, this should be just as engaging. The emphasis is not on everyone’s amazement that this is a girl in a man’s world. It’s brought up, sure, but no one is hung up on this. The story is bold enough to branch into the inner workings of humans in the ’50’s and ’60’s: good and bad.

Some of the most intriguing storylines have less to do with chess than they do real life. In particular, the relationship with her adoptive mother Alma (Heller) holds many of the series’ best moments. We don’t have to hear it put concretely when we’re shown through actions how poisonous environment can take its toll. It’s one of the best stories in a series full of great portrayals of human understanding.

There is a lot of stuff on these days. Too much to watch, it feels. Give this one a try, if you’re desiring to feel an experience, free of routine and common gimmicks. This is my vote for more work for Frank and Taylor-Joy. And someone start digging up more stories by Walter Tevis.

(***** out of *****)

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