The Queen’s Gambit is an intoxicating chess thriller

Anya Taylor-Joy’s alcoholic chess prodigy puts herself to the test in Scott Frank’s enthralling new Netflix series that proves again that the novels of Walter Tevis are fertile ground for adaptation.

6 November 2020

By Kim Newman

The Queen’s Gambit (2020)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ The Queen’s Gambit is on Netflix in seven episodes.

The slender output of American novelist Walter Tevis (1928-84) divides equally between literary yet page-turning novels about niche competitive sports and dystopian science fiction. It’s always puzzling and stimulating that one writer produced source material for superficially different yet classic auteur films – Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961), based on Tevis’s 1959 novel about pool, and Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), based on the 1963 novel.

Now Scott Frank’s Netflix ‘limited series’ adapts Tevis’s 1983 novel about a female chess grand master. In an apt fusion of previous screen Tevis protagonists, the huge-eyed Anya Taylor-Joy is at once as obsessive and savant-like a game-player as Paul Newman’s Fast Eddie Felton in The Hustler and as alien-seeming and lost on Earth as David Bowie’s Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth.

The thread that binds the strands of Tevis’s work is alcoholism: he described writing about an extra-terrestrial visitor marooned on our strange planet as a way of self-diagnosing the long-term effects of his drink problem. Taylor-Joy’s Beth Harmon is a portrait of an alcoholic woman on par with Piper Laurie’s in The Hustler and Candy Clark’s in The Man Who Fell to Earth (she even, in some lights, resembles both). The heroine’s self-destructive, raggedly glamorous behaviour – at her lowest, she dances alone in her underwear to Shocking Blue’s Venus while necking bottles of wine – matches Bowie’s similarly fashion-conscious dissolution. However, after Beth’s fall to Earth she reassembles herself for a rematch against Soviet champion Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski), who has the status in the chess world that legendary pool player Minnesota Fats does in the halls of The Hustler.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit

The plot of The Queen’s Gambit parallels The Hustler, building through preliminary rounds and bildungsroman flashbacks to a climax in which the contender – after losses and humiliations and strokes of good and bad luck – faces her nemesis on the best form of her life and wonders whether that’s still good enough. If it seems a foregone conclusion in sports movies that the young gun will best the old pro, it’s worth remembering it doesn’t turn out that way in The Cincinatti Kid (or Rocky, for that matter).

For Tevis, the player’s first opponent is always themself. Beth survives a tough orphanage childhood after her mad genius mother’s suicide, learning her game from a reclusive janitor (Bill Camp), then adopted by another erratic drunk (Marielle Heller). She sashays out of the 1950s into the 60s, with cool soundtrack and fashion choices, involved with a succession of opponents who become coaches, crushes, lovers or gun-barrel notches. Taylor-Joy pursues her own star character actress arc, from the haunted child of The Witch to the Austen heroine of Emma, and reaffirms her position – obvious even in fare like Morgan and The New Mutants – as one of the most distinctive presences in contemporary cinema and TV.

Harry Melling as Harry Beltik with Taylor Joy as Beth

Tevis writes brilliantly about chess – a less obviously film-friendly game than pool – and Frank devises a variety of stratagems to reproduce the tension as Beth plays many, many games over the course of seven episodes. Only once stooping to using her sex as a distraction – straying across the room doing odd little dance moves in a match with a little Russian boy who, like most of the men who face her across a board, is wonderstruck but underestimates her.

In film, chess games usually cover for fatalist philosophy (The Seventh Seal) or flirtation (The Thomas Crown Affair). Here, they’re most of the plot and fascinating as battles of the mind even to a viewer who barely knows the moves.

Thomas Brodie-Sangster is eccentric as the cowboy-hatted, knife-toting, country-talking kid who’s the American master before Beth comes along, but a great many character actors sketch vivid personalities with little or no dialogue, expressing themselves through studied stone faces and the minimal gestures of rigidly-defined moves. Like great chess (or pool), it’s exhilarating to watch and mastery is easy to miss.

Isla Johnston as young Beth with Bill Camp as Mr. Shaibel in The Queen’s Gambit

As a writer, Scott Frank has always been interested in mutant kids – as far back as Jodie Foster’s Little Man Tate (1991) and as recently as Logan (2017). As a writer-director, he has made solid genre fare (The Lookout, A Walk Among the Tombstones) for the cinema and become one of the first auteurs of the Netflix era, specialising in ambitious miniseries. The Queen’s Gambit follows the western Godless, set in a town populated after a mining disaster mostly by widows, and is extraordinarily assured.

One of its strengths is knowing when to leave a good thing alone – much of the dialogue is word-for-word what Tevis wrote (Rossen and Roeg did that too) – but this might serve as a textbook example of that hybrid new form, somewhere between a TV serial designed to be consumed in instalments and a seven-hour movie suitable for watching straight through.

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