There's something inherently impressive about a series that manages to make a game of chess as thrilling as the pivotal clash in Disney's Remember The Titans. You may think that's not overly high praise, but that sentiment, dear reader, is given in the context of someone with an almost gleeful indifference to sport, and, by extension, films about sport. Titans is my benchmark of a good sports movie, due to both the healthy dose of nostalgia associated with my first viewing of it, and the fact that it manages to sweep me up in the hyper-emotional, saccharine, you-can-do-it human elements of the story. The football aspect of that narrative is secondary to me (or, you could say, on the sideline. #sportsjoke). The FIFA-playing, Super Bowl-watching among you may be wondering, though, how on earth something as lame as a chess game could create the same level of excitement; that just means you haven't watched The Queen's Gambit yet.
Based on Walter Tevis's 1983 novel, the story tracks an orphaned Beth Harmon (eventually played by Anya Taylor-Joy) who becomes a chess prodigy under the reluctant tutelage of Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), a lowly janitor at her orphanage. She develops a dependency on the tranquiliser pills with which she's daily plied as a child, which surges into straight-up addiction. (In an ingenious, almost surreal bit of storytelling, with an equally effective accompanying CGI motif, a side effect of these pills becomes integral to her ability to practice her craft and troubleshoot.) She's eventually adopted by Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller) and her ABSOLUTE TEWL of a husband, who later becomes the manager of her burgeoning chess career (for a cut of her prize money, of course). As Beth continues to stampede through chess tournaments of increasing notoriety throughout the 1950s and 1960s, she thunders her way up an almost exclusively male-dominated scene, with her eyes fixed on the Moscow Invitational, the winner of which becomes the world champion; all the while, her persistent substance addiction threatens to derail her success.
The intimate, vulnerable details of Harmon's life trajectory are told with such candour and specificity that you would be forgiven for thinking this was a biopic. The backstory and supporting characters are so well-drawn (save for a couple) that it was truly a surprise to me to learn that the story is entirely fictional. The limited, seven-episode format demanded the leanest version of her rises and falls and, for the most part, creators Scott Frank and Allan Scott choose the most engaging path. For example, half an episode could have been dedicated to the truancy ramifications of Alma keeping her daughter home from school to attend another chess tournament under the guise of sickness. However, Beth has always been the smartest person in the room; discarding her school life so flippantly not only did wonders for the flow of the story by introducing a touch of levity, but also gave some indirect character insight.
The cast of supporting characters, including a number of not-quite-boyfriends, seem to pass through her life at just the right time, a couple of them feeling more like plot devices than people. As a result, some didn't feel as though they'd had the same in-depth development treatment, none more so than Jolene (Moses Ingram), Beth's foul-mouthed, well-intentioned friend from the orphanage, who seemed to have a few too many episodes off, given how important she was in the first two.
All that said, in the same way that a chess player can call for a draw (I honestly didn't know you could do that), it's a two-way tie for The Queen's Gambit's MVPs: Anya Taylor-Joy and editor Michelle Tesoro. Taylor-Joy's performance is remarkable, straddling the line between self-assuredness and fragility with the same level of dexterity with which she moves a bishop across the board to take a pawn. Beth's underlying drug addition adds an intricate layer of complexity, not to mention that it changes severity throughout her life, and Taylor-Joy handles the gear shifts easily. In the same breath, her chess form wouldn't be anywhere near as engaging without Tesoro's smart, crisp editing. Coupled with Carlos Rafael Rivera's intuitive score (sometimes channeling the best of Yann Tiersen and a flair for simple triple time), the chess matches themselves are genuinely enthralling and had me on the edge of my seat more than an AFL Grand Final would (I wrote that with a straight face).
While it turns out we might not have as much need for binge-worthy material here in Adelaide as we first thought, you should still add The Queen's Gambit to your queue if you're after several hours of captivating, entertaining television. It'd be a rookie mistake not to.
Check it out, mate.
The Queen's Gambit is streaming now on Netflix.