The Queens Gambit Review: A Winning Chess Thriller – Wall Street Journal

Grandmaster Chess

It took this viewer about seven consecutive hours to watch all seven episodes of The Queens Gambit, and while this may constitute all the review some readers need to get on board, others might also like to know what the miniseries is about. In a word, chessthough thats a bit like saying Hamlet is about Danish royal succession, or The Wizard of Oz is about meteorology.

Created by director Scott Frank and screenwriter Allan Scott and based on a 1983 book by Walter Tevisother Tevis adaptations include The Hustler, The Color of Money and The Man Who Fell to EarthThe Queens Gambit is novelistic in the best sense, using chess as a kind of metaphoric Swiss army knife to open up a tale of obsession, addiction, adoption and the solitude of genius. That genius is Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch), an orphan, tranquilizer enthusiast and budding alcoholic. Eventually, she becomes a reluctant propaganda tool in the Cold War. From birth, it seems, shes been a chess savant.

For all the series successes, especially as fictional biography and a portrait of an era (the 50s and 60s), what may haunt the viewer is the image of Ms. Taylor-Joys face, furtively doe-eyed, peering upward, moving shadowy pieces across the imaginary chessboard of her bedroom ceiling as she plots the next days attack, or locking eyes with a grandmaster before reducing his game to rubble. Despite the cerebral nature of the sport and its less-than-breathtaking pace, The Queens Gambita title that refers to one of the oldest openings in the history of the gameis a thriller. It absorbs the viewer into the rarefied realm of world-class competition and acquaints the nonplayer with enough of the mechanics to make the outcomes accessible and meaningful. The very idea of a chess epic might suggest to some the old saw about academic politicsthat theyre so vicious because the stakes are so low. Can chess mean so much? To Beth Harmonand therefore to her audiencechess is everything. And for reasons that make her both heroic and heartbreaking.

Shes like us, the Soviet world champion, Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski), will say of the dangerous but unsteady Ms. Harmon. Losing is not an option. Shes an orphan, he tells the other grandmasters who travel with him: What other life does she have? Borgov might not be the most enlightened Russian, but his comments touch on the thing that makes The Queens Gambit so poignant and universal: That as single-minded and masterly as Beth can be at the chessboard, her story is one not just of struggle, but serendipity. Her dead, mad mother was a Ph.D. in math; the implication is that the girl has inherited both instability and a chess-friendly mind. But what would have become of the angry, 9-year-old Beth (the terrific Isla Johnston) if she hadnt happened upon the mournful janitor Shaibel (a great Bill Camp) playing chess alone in the orphanage basement, asked him what it was, and before being rebuffed had seen enough of the game to almost figure it out herself? And what if Shaibel hadnt then recognized her gift, mentored her, introduced her to an outside world of chess players, all of whom she soundly defeats? Shaibel knowsand Mr. Camp makes it sorrowfully clear he knowsthat the janitor has unleashed a chess monster upon the world. And a world of suffering upon the girl.

Unlike chess, Beths life is all about chance. Close to miraculous is her adoption as a near-adolescent by Alma Wheatley, a character as sui generis as Beth and one played with tragic dreaminess by Marielle Heller. (If there are awards to be had, Ms. Heller and Ms. Taylor-Joy should get them.) Almas motivations are never quite clearshe claims at one point that adoption was the idea of her disagreeable and soon-to-be-vanished husband, Allston (Patrick Kennedy), but she is lonely, drinks and takes the same tranquilizers that were dispensed at the orphanage (which proves a convenience). Alma is a talented pianist; her diction makes her sound like a Jane Austen heroine, and her homedecorated with yards of appalling wallpaper, clashing colors and incongruous curtainsis a mirror of her life (and sometimes, it seems, a tortured chessboard). Yet in the literature of adoptive parents she is a marvel: Any adopted child arrives in a family with her own narrative; Alma respects Beths, and vice versa. Alma becomes Beths friend first, then her mother; she navigates her daughter into the tournament world, and cheers her on. Its a relationship as memorable as Ms. Taylor-Joys face.

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The Queens Gambit Review: A Winning Chess Thriller - Wall Street Journal

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