Cover art by @flowandwind on Instagram
By Alena Nguyen
I don’t love chess, but I love Anya Taylor-Joy ever since I saw her astounding performance as Emma in Autumn de Wilde’s film rendition of ‘Emma’, so I had to watch ‘The Queen’s Gambit’.
The show, taking place in the 1960s, is about a female chess prodigy named Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) who, after being orphaned then adopted, makes a name for herself in the world by defeating world champions one by one until she eventually has to defeat the ultimate grandmaster- not to mention her underlying addiction to certain pills given to her by the orphanage that somehow affect her chess performance. In a game industry dominated by males, Beth easily makes a name for herself by keeping a winner’s attitude. The full circle return to the first scenes of the show was a creative approach to this ‘rags-to-riches’ tale that I wish I saw more in television and biopics.
Beth has this almost sociopathic-like wit that I was shocked to see didn’t change throughout her life. Her biological family life was far from pleasant, as we get to see glimpses of it in Beth’s occasional flashbacks. Her mother and father’s relationship was tumultuous, which led to her mother killing herself and how Beth ended up at the orphanage. Once Beth got to the orphanage, her attitude still didn’t change when she got addicted to certain green pills that likely enhanced her initial chess performance when the janitor in the basement taught Beth how to play.
It wasn’t until Beth got adopted by the Wheatleys that her personality begins to bloom. Beth begins high school and defeats all the boys in the chess club (which inevitably resulted in Beth being quite unpopular and excluded among the girls at school) and that winner’s attitude shines through a lot more than before. Taylor-Joy does an immaculate job at portraying a character whose traits are consistent yet captivating; Beth is a mesmerizing character and the interactions with the other characters and how they perceive her are entertaining to witness.
As Mr. Wheatley is out on weekly “business trips”, Beth and her mother Alma (played by Marielle Heller) become closer which results in her mother finding out about Beth’s great skill that quickly becomes immense profit for the two of them. When in Mexico for a chess tournament, Heller plays an excellent job at displaying how different the mother is from Beth- unlike Beth, Alma is more free-spirited and whimsical, giving into any man that will give her attention (but that man always seems to leave). Beth, on the other hand, is much more independent, stoic and focused, which is what is required of a good chess player, much less a grandmaster. Yet despite their personality differences, Beth and Alma have a tight-knit bond and their differences only make their relationship stronger.
The romances Beth got into, from Harry Beltik (Harry Melling, best known as Dudley in the “Harry Potter” cinematic universe), to D.L. Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) and finally Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), were cute subplots, as each man didn’t hold Beth back and somehow make her choose between chess and them. Instead, I loved how they helped Beth become an even better chess player and helped progress her own career. This was a unique twist on romance as a plot device, as romance is usually there to appease the hopeless romantic in all of us, but not this time.
As I mentioned before, chess is boring to watch for many people, including myself. However, the cinematography and quick shots combined with the illustrative instrumental music resulted in gripping games that I couldn’t take my eyes off of. While I didn’t understand a single move that was made, watching Beth’s and her opponent’s brows furrow in deep thought as they quickly pushed pieces off of the board was more than enough thrill for me.
The set design was gorgeous and each location that Beth travelled to was gorgeous and reminded me of Ryan Murphy (creator of ‘Ratched’, ‘American Horror Story’, ‘Glee’) set design with daring colors and bold furniture, staying true to the time period the show takes place in. Anya Taylor-Joy fits so well into that 1960s cultural era and pulls off the fashion sense charmingly.
‘The Queen’s Gambit’ should not be overlooked. Check out this original series now on Netflix.