2020 may have been a year spent largely stuck at home, but one unexpected holiday-for-the-mind came from Netflix and their limited series The Queen’s Gambit, arguably the event of the year. What makes it such a big deal? Firstly, this is a genuine sleeper hit, an unheralded phenomenon that instantly became a pop culture hit; most Netflix packages drop out of their own top ten in days if not weeks, Scott Frank’s seven hour drama was still there five months later. Secondly, it’s apropos of nothing; if there was a groundswell of interest in chess, or prodigal talents, or anything thematically linked to this project, it’s news to me. And thirdly, despite it’s origins, this is cinematic in a way that few streaming premieres are; the talent involved is top of the line, and so is the result.
Scottish writer Alan Scott is probably best known for his work on Nic Roeg’s 1973 classic Don’t Look Now, but has a full and accomplished career behind him. Scott accessed the rights to the Queen’s Gambit book some 30 years ago, and has made this a passion project, enlisting the considerable gift of writer/director Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Logan) to get it made. The book as written by the late, great Walter Tevis, who captured a certain zeitgeist with his book The Hustler in the 1950’s, which became an iconic role for Paul Newman, and one reprised in a sequel The Color of Money with help from Tom Cruise and Martin Scorsese. But before you dust off the sports cliches, Tevis also wrote the book which would become The Man Who Fell To Earth, the David-Bowie alien head-f*ck which couldn’t be more different from The Hustler, but somehow forms a thematic bridge to The Queen’s Gambit.
Fresh from The Witch and Emma, Anya Taylor-Joy plays Beth Harmon, an orphaned girl who develops an obsessive interest in chess. After a minor rebellion against the orphanage staff, Beth escapes to a foster family, but her gift for the game quickly leaves the rest behind and takes her to a world of international intrigue, and romance with a number of the arrogant, brainy men who have the monopoly on the chess world, Until the arrival of Beth Harmon, that is…Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd and others portray the guys who Beth plays with and then discards along the way…
Beth Harmon is an obsessive; a visual trope sees her playing each game through a visual representation of their celling, which becomes an inverted board in her mind. Like Fast Eddie Felson or his pupil, Beth wants to be the best, but like Bowie’s otherworldly visitor , she’s divorced from any success she might have by her own obsessions and sense of alienation. This might sound like high-falutin’ stuff, but The Queen’s Gambit never puts a step wrong with a straight-forward, wide-eyed narrative; no extraneous characters, no shonky period detail, and a clear sight of Beth’s development over the years, from precocious girl to woman to voracious grand-master of men.
Developed by Heath Ledger amongst other talents, The Queen’s Gambit is an instant classic, seemingly as meaningful to the literate over-thinker as to casual audiences, and exactly the kind of original project that rarely seemed to find purchase in cinema over the last few decades. It’s a huge success for Taylor-Joy, for Frank, for Scott, and for Netflix; much maligned in this blog, the streaming service gambled small and won big with this extraordinary project. As The Queen’s Gambit steamrollers to a rousing conclusion, on this evidence Netflix might just have stumbled on a match-winning gambit their game while its competitors are eating their pieces.