As the streaming wars intensify and Netflix feels even more need than ever to stand out from the pre-established IPs the other streamers like Disney Plus and HBO Max possess, they need shows like this more than ever. A seven-part limited series, with a rising star at its centre and a focus not on spectacle and explosions, but character and drama, and they will therefore be delighted that The Queen’s Gambit has become not just one of their biggest shows of the year, but one of 2020s biggest hits across the globe.
People have been captivated by Scott Frank’s story of orphan Beth Harmon’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) journey to become a chess master on the world stage, and all the people she interacts with along the way. On the surface, a limited series set in the 60s about the world of chess is not something you instantly think of as must-see TV, but that is certainly what has happened here, and there is a very particular reason. Chess is used as a pawn to be able to tell a very specific and personal character story, and that is why it works, because it isn’t actually a show about chess, it is a show about the human condition.
The recreation of the 60s is not particularly flashy but is absolutely spot on in every aspect, with some really strong production design, costume design, and hairstyling, making it feel authentic to the time period it is in, without ever looking like it is trying to show off. We also have some interesting themes explored that are specific to the time period itself, without ever focusing on it too much, whether it is on the young housewives turning to drink to get through lives they have got stuck in, or it is the way the US v Soviet Union conflict manages to seep its way into all walks of life, including Beth’s chess career.
There are some interesting visual sparks used throughout to portray the way in which Beth sees the game of chess and illustrate why she is able to be so good, because she simply sees the game in a different way than everyone else and it makes for a very compelling visual that recurs through the series. As for her opponents and friends in the chess world, this is where Beth has the opportunity to develop relationships with multiple dashing men, all of which offer different things to her personally over the years and allow for her to grow and experience more, and all have an ‘Avengers: Endgame’ style moment together in the finale.
However, the main stand out from the supporting cast is film director Marielle Heller as Beth’s adopted mother. She is a revelation in this acting role and brings real charm and pathos to the kind parental figure, who eventually succumbs to her demons and falls down the hole of addiction, something Beth soon repeats herself.
Arguably the single most important reason why the shows works so well is its lead star Anya Taylor-Joy. For me, she was already one of the best rising stars in Hollywood before this, after some brilliant performances in the likes of The Witch, Split, Thoroughbreds, and Emma, but this is probably her most complicated and nuanced role, and she absolutely dominates it. Her progression from naïve and dependent teen to addict and brilliant chess master in the space of a few years is remarkable, and the fact that Taylor-Joy able to make Beth both incredibly engaging and likable (the dreaded word, I know), as well being incredibly damaged and self-destructive, therefore making a truly fully formed character that you completely root for, is magnificent.
One sequence in particular, where Beth goes on a downward spiral in her home, and we see her dancing around in her underwear, cigarette in her mouth and drinking from the bottle, and she flails around, performing for no one and desperately searching to feel something, really sums up the quality of her acting. It is visually interesting, but is also a defining moment for the character as she hits rock bottom and Taylor-Joy delivers in this moment unlike much I have seen in 2020, and I thinks he is a serious awards contender for this role. She has already filmed Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho and Robert Eggers’ The Northman, and will soon start production in the role of ‘Furiosa’ in George Miller’s Mad Max prequel, so it is safe to say that things are only looking up for Anya Taylor-Joy.
Overall, this is an incredibly well made and engaging piece of television, and is exactly what Netflix need to keep producing to stay ahead of the competition. I think it is interesting that it has caught on quite as much as it has, because for me, despite all the praise, there was something slightly lacking to make me go crazy for it, but I still really liked it. Anya Taylor-Joy is truly magnetic and I cannot wait to see what the future holds for arguably the most talented young actor in Hollywood.
Rating = 4/5