'The Queen's Gambit' Makes Chess Seem Glamorous and Exciting

Directed by Scott Frank

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Isla Johnston, Bill Camp, Moses Ingram, Marielle Heller

BY Sarah Jessica Rintjema Published Nov 30, 2020

The Queen's Gambit is the seven-episode limited series currently ruling Netflix, where creators Scott Frank and Allan Scott manage to make chess electrifying, glamorous, and absolutely riveting. 

After losing her mother in a tragic accident, Beth Harmon (played as a child by Isla Johnston), the reserved but highly intelligent nine year-old, is placed in a 1950s Kentucky orphanage. Introduced to chess by the custodian Mr. Shaibel, (Bill Camp) she becomes obsessed, spending her childhood afternoons playing in the basement and her evenings hallucinating on tranquilizer pills to visualize past and future games. Beth is adopted in her early teens by a couple in Lexington, where she enters her first professional chess tournament, and wins. Discovered as a prodigy, she begins competing across the country with her adoptive mother (Marielle Heller) — but as her career skyrockets, so does her dependency on drugs and alcohol.

Anya Taylor-Joy, playing Beth as a young adult, debuted in Robert Egger's The Witch, and hasn't faltered since. She proves herself as a force to be reckoned with in The Queen's Gambit, effortlessly carrying the weight of the emotionally troubled and complex genius Beth as she boldly pursues victory in an overwhelmingly male-dominated space. A rare tale of female intellect, Harmon's story is one that isn't told as often as it should.

What keeps The Queen's Gambit from being a classic are its historical inaccuracies — specifically when it comes to racial tensions. While it's possible that Beth was placed in the most progressive orphanage in Kentucky, segregation wasn't abolished by the mid-'50s. Aside from a few throwaway lines from the unfortunate 'Black guardian angel' trope Jolene (a fellow orphan played by Moses Ingram) about feeling discriminated against by potential adoptive parents, and Beth making a sly joke about being a "dumb white cracker" (to which Jolene tilts her head back and cackles — isn't that fun!?), everything seems happy-go-lucky in what must be some alternate American universe.

While it's moves aren't perfect, The Queen's Gambit's striking imagery and powerhouse performances created a Netflix original matriarch. 

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