The Queen's Gambit (2020)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

Chess becomes riveting in this seven-part miniseries on Netflix, in which a shy orphan takes on the demons of her own past and present, and the greatest Grandmasters around the world.

When her mother is killed in a car accident, young Beth Harmon (Isla Johnson) winds up in an orphanage. Befriended by a smart and sassy black girl named Jolene (Moses Ingram) who encourages her to save her pills for “nighttime … when they can rev you up instead of wind you down,” Beth struggles to fit into the environment. Until one day, sent below stairs to pound chalk erasers, she meets the quiet janitor Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) and catches sight of his chess board. It’s fascination at first look, but at first he refuses to teach her.

And when he does, she shocks him with her natural insight and talent for the game. A talent she assists by envisioning the board and all possible moves each night before she goes to sleep. Soon, she catches the attention of one of his chess friends, who invites her to play concurrent games with his Chess Club members. One girl among a sea of smart boys, Beth beats them all. And a few years later gets adopted by a struggling married couple with nothing in common.

That’s when she discovers chess tournaments… and her life changes forever. Love and loss, heartbreak and triumph, victories and defeats all await Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy) as she rubs shoulders with some of the sport’s best players—Benny (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Harry Beltik (Harry Melling), and eventually, the Russian Chessmaster, Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski).

Though I have some complaints about this series overall (did it really need the MA language?), it’s rare that I spend seven hours riveted by a mini-series. Beth is a likable character in all her dysfunctional arrogance, a girl who is so good at something, she doesn’t study it enough and winds up being humiliated more than once. A girl who has never felt loved, so she drowns her sorrows in booze and pills. And a girl who has the courage, finally, to pull herself up out of the hole she has been digging herself into, and save herself. I enjoyed her friendship with Jolene, and the sense of community she eventually finds in her “boys” – even if she wasn’t looking for a support group.

Though heavily about chess, the series never feels slow, and doesn’t insist  you know much about the game. It speeds through matches staged by actual Chessmasters, and Anya is such a compelling actress with such an unusual face, you never lose interest even when she’s staring down the lens of the camera. Flashbacks give us peeks about her dysfunctional childhood with her “crazy” mother, but the series mostly stays in the present. It has twists, turns, and one episode that is rather painful to watch, in which we watch Beth drown her sorrows. It can be a bit obscure at times (is the man she loves gay or not?), but is a fresh story I haven’t seen before, about a host of interesting people.

The atmosphere is a perfect throwback to the 60s, with all the peculiar gowns, loud wallpaper, saddle shoes, and haircuts that go along with it, and period music often transitions us between scenes and closes out each episode. It’s perky and fun. My only other issue is that it falls into the same bigoted stereotypes about Christians (as narrow-minded and callous; none of them, for example, show up to a funeral for their twenty-odd-year janitor) as many other shows. Despite that, though it suffers from an excess of bad language and choices, it was an enjoyable way for me to spend a rainy Friday afternoon.

Sexual Content:
Beth finds and lights a candle shaped like male private parts at a party. A man asks her what it is, she tells him to tell her instead; we then see a brief clothed sex scene in which she's uncomfortable and bored. She sleeps with other men along the way (we see them breathing heavily "afterward" or she switches on the light). She often dances around in her underwear and dresses on camera. An early scene shows a couple kissing, with the man's hands on the woman's breasts underneath her shirt.
 
Language:
A dozen abuses of Jesus' name, including one with the f-word in the middle. Lots of f-words. C*cksucker is frequently used as an insult in the first episode. S**t. General profanities, some racial slurs and insults ("cracker").
 
Violence:
We see the aftermath of a car accident and a body covered with a tarp. A woman falls and hits her head on a table, knocking her unconscious for hours, after she got drunk and took pills.

 
Other:
Beth drinks a lot. And smokes. And takes "downers" (pills) that she washes down with alcohol. She persists in getting drunk, high, and taking them even though everyone warns her if she doesn't stop, she'll be washed up and/or dead by 21. Eventually, she kicks the habit after going on several benders. As a child, she breaks into the office to steal those pills and almost overdoses on them. She also steals a chess magazine from a local store (and pays for years later). The depiction of Christians is somewhat negative (her teachers are harsh and seen as judgmental; a friend tells her to take whatever money the Christians offer her, to get to Russia, but she refuses to speak their "f**king stupid rhetoric" and thus gives it all back).