The Queen’s Gambit delves into the life of a young orphan and chess prodigy named Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy). The show explores feminism, drug addiction, alcoholism and mental health all against the framework of the social adversities of living in 1950s and 1960s America as a woman.
We follow Beth as she experiences new relationships and learns how to handle her rising status while competing to become the world’s greatest chess player. Taylor-Joy transgresses the typicality of performance, for this coming of age narrative, by playing both Beth at her present age to her at age 15. With striking red hair and garish eyeliner, Taylor-Joy shows her acting prowess through a wonderful performance with childlike mannerisms that erode the barrier of being conscious that she is actually an adult in her twenties, not a young teenager.
Other notable stars in the series are Thomas Brody Sangster who plays the USA Chess Champion and Beth’s rival, Benny Watts. Harry Melling plays Harry Beltik, one of the best chess players in Kentucky. These men weave their way into Beth’s life at various points and challenge her both mentally and physically, however her success as a chess player consistently subverts expectations by also participating in the hedonistic culture of 1960’s America- she has to work consistently against the grain in order to prove her skill.
The show is aesthetically beautiful and creates glamour in the world of chess. Taylor-Joy’s captivating performance has viewers sitting on the edge of their seat during a seemingly mundane game, using her body language and narrowing eyes to anxiously await her next move. This is particularly well demonstrated via a long chess match sequence where the camera barely pans down to the chess board, remaining focused on their faces as he yawns either in distraction or irritation at Beth’s unexpected talent. This close-up filming further emphasises Beth’s dedication to chess; her consistent eyes on Harry are not only to calculate his next move but also to express her disappointment in his late arrival and lack of dedication.
What makes The Queen’s Gambit such a great series is the rawness and complex themes shown in each character. The timely wardrobe and production design transport the viewer back to 1960s America, assimilating them even more with the struggles a female chess player would face. Gabriele Binder, the costume designer behind the show’s looks, chose a vivid color palette when creating Beth’s outfits. Her wardrobe is also centered on a light green shade, which is seen in her first look when she arrives at the orphanage as a child as well as in one of her last looks, a collared dress she wears during a chess competition. This continuity added a lovely dimension and it is this level of detail which is often overlooked in a series, but to me, particularly stood out in this one.
Each episode has a distinctive feel, adapting the atmosphere and surroundings to fit Beth’s mood. The show regularly flashes back to her childhood as Beth pieces together her past and her mother’s emotional turmoil, which mirror Beth’s own struggle with her rising fame. The show does suffer from pacing issues; each chess match felt repetitive and it takes several episodes before Beth even loses one. This made the show feel unrealistic – even the greatest chess players of all time have had a higher percentage in losses. Beth on the other hand always seems to win.
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