Netflix’s “Queen’s Gambit” is a chess game between genius and madness

Anya Taylor-Joy stars in Netflix The Queen’s Gambit. PHIL BRAY / NETFLIX

A young girl looks at the ceiling of her bed late at night. Suddenly the dark shadows begin to twinkle. What was once an indecipherable darkness transforms into clear, present structures with ghostly hues of light. It is a chessboard and the 16 pieces rush quickly onto the square battlefield. Attack, Counterattack, Retreat and Redeployment. Endless sequences and possibilities played out in the mind of Anya-Taylor Joy’s young chess prodigy Beth Harmon on Netflix The QueenGambit. It’s an awesome visual motif concocted by cinematographer Steven Meizler, bringing to life what might otherwise be a stoic board game in the eyes of disinterested viewers.

Adapted from Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel, Netflix’s upcoming miniseries uses Beth’s rise through the global chess ranks to reflect her own personal development, from a struggling orphan to young woman. Sneaking into the 1950s and 1960s, creator Scott Frank explores the connective tissue between genius and madness. We all marveled at the stories of gifted wonders and wondered what we would do with such gifts. Here we are reminded that we could be better off without them.

The Queen’s Gambit is a visual character study thanks to its period setting and clever cinematography. Taylor-Joy, herself a rising Hollywood name (who just played Furiosa in the upcoming prequel of Mad Max: Fury Road), is a timeless woman here, infinitely frustrated by the consideration that she is extraordinary in her chosen field only because of her gender. Taylor-Joy infuses Beth with alternating levels of acidity and reserve. She longs for the relatively simple algorithmic rules of the chessboard in the midst of a turbulent young life. The daughter of a mathematical genius who is devastated by her own untreated mental illness, Beth amplifies her natural gifts with tranquilizer pills that allow her to manifest her ghostly chessboard every night. She then eases her pain with an almost endless supply of alcohol. These benders serve as momentary intermissions to his steadfast obsession with chess. Autonomous to the point of fault (“the strongest person is someone who is not afraid to be alone,” another character tells her), Beth confuses self-destruction with self-awakening.

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As such, she keeps those around her at a distance. Bill Camp, who deserves far more screen time than he gave here, introduces 9-year-old Beth to chess during her time at the orphanage and quickly realizes her incredible talent. In his gruff way, he nurtures that initial spark. Chess rivals-turned-friends and romantic interests include the kind but egotistical Benny (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and the sweet Harry (Harry Melling). Everyone arrives and crosses paths at different times in their life. They push her to new levels both professionally and personally, even when she isn’t able to admit that she needs help. Can you ever forgive me? and A beautiful day in the neighborhood Director Marielle Heller plays Beth’s adoptive mother, Alma Wheatley, with a sense of wan sympathy. As a ’60s housewife, robbed of her potential by time, she is both Beth’s only true connection to the world and an uplifting tale. In their own way, they all represent complementary pieces on the chessboard flanking the Queen of Beth, even if it is up to her to realize their importance.

Part sports story and part addiction drama, The Queen’s Gambit uses its fast-paced seven-episode season apart from a bit too much of a throat-clearing to begin with. (After a brief in the media opening, Taylor-Joy disappears for the first episode and a half of flashbacks; try to stick to it.) The matches themselves take on a variety of meanings ranging from playful sexual tension to all-out war, becoming mini-narratives as part of each chapter. Lay people like me may have no idea what all this relentless chess positioning means, but Frank and Meizler deliver the action in an entertaining but easily digestible way.

Regardless of our inner strength, detachment and loneliness will hold us back from our true potential. These are the people in our lives that anchor us to the real world, cutting through our obsessions and minimizing the insanity we all have inside of us in one way or another. It’s a lesson learned only through trial and error, and Beth sacrifices several pawns on her way to this ultimate achievement.

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