Readers Write In #295: The Queen’s Gambit

Posted on November 10, 2020


(by Sundar)

Streaming on Netflix and consisting of seven episodes, each with a runtime of about an hour, The Queen’s Gambit could be termed as a coming of age drama of an orphaned girl who is a chess prodigy. Based on a novel by Walter Tevis, The Queen’s Gambit happens in the cold war years when the race between the USA and Russia spilled over to chess boards. (From Russia with love, anyone?) Set in the US, Elizabeth Harmon, orphaned after an road accident, gets admitted to an small town orphanage, where she is drawn to the game of chess. After much pestering, the genial old janitor, Shaibel agrees to teach her the game. And it does not take much time for Shaibel to realise ‘Beth’ is a chess prodigy, a sheer genius. The story unfolds over the next ten years or so of Beth’s life – her adopted home, her brilliance in the game, her troubles with relationship, her struggle with her own self and her meteoric rise in the sport that culminates in the world championship showdown in Moscow.

Screenwriting for a character who is a genius in any field is expected to follow a template. Like, the onscreen geniuses are supposed to be eccentrics, mostly loners, persons who lack normal empathy and above all, men and women who cannot handle failures in their fields. Maybe that is the reality too. The writers of The Queen’s Gambit have used the same mould without any major deviations. An easy parallel could be drawn between the onscreen Sherlock Holmes, the genius investigator (Sherlock, played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and Elizabeth Harmon. You have Mrs.Hudson and Dr.Watson here too, but just that they are in different forms. But, while the characterisation per se does not break any new ground, the decision of the creators – of placing a girl-lady at the centre of a board game that symbolises human intellect and is still dominated by men – is simply brilliant, simply smart and more importantly, is not an easy one to make. Beth stands out, dazzles.


Anya Taylor-Joy, as the grownup Beth, has not just breathed life and soul into the character but she has actually carried the entire series on her shoulders. Even within the limited bandwidth of emotions she is required to display, drawing from her hitherto unexplored resources as an actor, Taylor-Joy has given such a nuanced performance. Taylor-Joy has convincingly portrayed Beth, the super gifted chess player, as someone who oozes super cool confidence while at the same time as someone who tries hard to conceal her vulnerabilities. Not very often female actors get an opportunity to play such big roles; Taylor-Joy has made full use of the chance handed out to her. She is here to stay.

Taylor-Joy has been supported exceedingly well by Bill Camp, Moses Ingram, Marielle Heller, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, Thomas Brodie-Sangster and others, who play the roles of Beth’s coaches, confidants, companions and competitors in the dramatic life of the prodigy.

Irrespective of the hardships and complexities, it is comparatively easier to shoot sports like racing or boxing. It is due to the mere fact that the very nature of these sports, packed with exciting action and a boisterous bunch of spectators, allows the audience to get connected with them easily. But with a game like chess in which the movement of the players is restricted mainly to their right hands coming up once a while, and where the spectators are expected to maintain pin-drop silence, it is indeed a tough task to create riveting visuals. Editor Michelle Tesoro and cinematographer Steven Meizler, getting solid support from composer Carlos Rafael Rivera, have worked wonders with their innovative shots and cuts. We are drawn into the game fully and there is never a moment of dullness. The high point being the presentation of the U.S. Championship tournament (Episode 5, Fork). It is such a beautiful and intelligent work.

What is the gold standard for an outstanding creation? The long and short of it is: None. But one of the metrics could be the way in which the creator spins a riveting tale out of normal ingredients – just like a magician pulling out cute bunnies out of a boring black hat right in front of your eyes in broad daylight. The sport of chess definitely does not belong to the league of attractive regulars like athletics or soccer, or for that matter even golf where one gets to at least see meticulously maintained landscapes dotted with fancy ponds, roving buggies and so on. And in the world of streaming platforms ruled by macho men in the form of gangsters, cops and kings, an orphaned girl as the central lead did not stand any chance – or at least that is what is presumed. But in The Queen’s Gambit, out of the boring black hat of chess boards and a lady as the lead, the creators Allan Scott and Scott Frank have pulled out something truly remarkable. Checkmated!