December 2020

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The Queen’s Gambit
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Photo 1 The Queen's Gambit's Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), Photo 2 Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Photo 3 Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller) Photo 4 Young Beth (Isla Johnston) with her teacher, custodian Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp)

The Queen’s Gambit

  • By AC Remler
  • Photos Courtesy of Netflix

Since premiering October 23rd on Netflix, The Queen’s Gambit has continued to soar in popularity, reportedly setting the record as the most-watched scripted limited series to date on Netflix. The streamer says that the seven-part dramatic miniseries has made the top ten list in 92 countries. What accounts for its phenomenal performance and endurance? After all, there have been plenty of films focused on male chess prodigies (Searching for Bobby Fischer, Pawn Sacrifice). But beyond Disney’s little-known Queen of Katwe, the game has not yet been explored through the experience of a female fictional character like Beth Harmon as portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen’s Gambit. While Taylor-Joy’s “Beth” is damaged and troubled, she also shows grit, perseverance and intelligence. Considering our current social conditions have primed audiences to embrace women as strong protagonists who overcome adversity, The Queen’s Gambit couldn’t have come at a better time. In 1960s Kentucky, Beth Harmon (Taylor-Joy) is an 8-year-old orphan who finds refuge in the basement of her all-girls orphanage playing chess with the janitor, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp). In the meantime, Beth becomes addicted to the anxiety drugs that the orphanage doles out to the girls to dull the severity of their daily existence. She befriends smart-mouthed Jolene, played with great aptitude by Moses Ingram, who coaches her on surviving life at the orphanage with guile beyond her years. As time goes by, Beth continues to hone her game skills with Mr. Shaibel, and submerges herself into the male world of chess — soon beating champions in local competitions and bruising male egos as she excels. She somehow equates her flourishing chess ability with her drug use and relies on pills to boost her confidence as she checkmates her way to national competitions. Meanwhile, Beth is adopted and bids farewell to Jolene and the orphanage life. Beth’s adoptive mother, Alma, is unceremoniously dumped by her husband, and soon takes note of Beth’s moneymaking potential. Alma joins Beth on the game circuit as her manager/chaperone abusing drugs and alcohol along the way. Theirs is a fascinating relationship to watch unfold. Played by filmmaker/actress Marielle Heller, Alma is the first person to actually show Beth genuine love. While their relationship is extremely unconventional, and complicated by their internal demons, the mother-daughter duo develop a strong and supportive bond (there’s almost a “Thelma and Louise” vibe to their escapades). Eventually, Beth makes close friends with fellow circuit players who revere her command of the game, and with their encouragement and tutoring, they help prepare Beth for the penultimate competition against the Russian world champion. And just as Beth hits rock bottom, Jolene reemerges as captivating as ever to inform Beth of Mr. Shaibel’s death. And in an extremely satisfying show of women empowering other women, Jolene picks her up and dusts her off, steering her right again. Based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis and directed by Scott Frank, the series was 40 years in the making, with the late Heath Ledger originally attached as the director and star. Clearly it’s been worth the wait and the perfect cast has emerged  — almost an entire lifetime later. Beth is superbly acted by Taylor-Joy. With her alluring saucer-like eyes, she’s able to create dramatic tension during game-play scenes where there is little other action. It’s no wonder the American Argentine British actress’ previous roles were in fantasy and horror films where facial expression is often more critical than dialogue. Meanwhile, Frank creates intrigue around the procedures, rituals and etiquette the game demands and shows how people, particularly in other cultures, can be whipped into a frenzy over a chess match — as if they were watching the Super Bowl. And even though The Queen’s Gambit is a fictional account, it’s so authentic in detail and dialogue, it’s sorta hard not to feel that Beth existed before Taylor-Joy brought her to life. The series’ success has been a boon for the game globally. Just in time for the holidays, the demand for chess sets is skyrocketing. We hope this can encourage people to perhaps spend more time thinking strategically above a chessboard than aimlessly browsing their phones. We say Checkmate to that!

“The Queen’s Gambit” is now streaming on Netflix.

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