Intense and exciting, whether you like chess or not, Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit series is one of the best new releases of this end of year 2020.
The Queen’s gambit: checkmate in 7 moves
Apart from a few too rare exceptions – including the incredible Dispatches from Elsewhere, which remains my favorite new series of 2020 – the last few months haven’t really convinced me in terms of TV novelties.
Some series showed, certainly, a real potential on paper, even during their first episodes (Snowpiercer, Raised by Wolves, Truth Seekers, Lovecraft Country…), yet their undeniable qualities and a few bursts of interest here and there, were not enough for me not to get bored… I didn’t even manage to go through some of them (Avenue 5, Solar Opposites and especially Space Force)!
Luckily, a handful of series, which I will probably tell you about later, hit the bull’s eye. And of these, the most effective is the one we’re interested in today.
A few weeks ago, Netflix came to get me out of my TV torpor with The Queen’s Gambit, in VO.
A story of genius, served on a platter
To tell you quite honestly, beyond its chess theme, I started watching the series out of curiosity about the infatuation it quickly aroused. And I was very pleased, because all the praises I heard about it were well deserved.
So, what’s it all about, The Queen’s Gambit, you may well wonder after this lengthy introduction?
Based on the novel by Walter Tevis, this mini-series is based on the American Beth Harmon and runs for 7 episodes. It is about following her life, from the 1950s, from her childhood to her life as a young woman, through her adolescence.
Orphaned, the heroine embodied by the impeccable Anya Taylor-Joy (and the very convincing Isla Johnston for her younger years), will very quickly demonstrate an innate talent for chess, to the point of deciding to make it her career.
During her rise in this very male environment, Beth Harmon drove her opponents like flies, starting with small local tournaments and finally playing in international competitions dominated for decades by Grand Masters.
The royal Anya Taylor-Joy is called spider
But that’s certainly not all. For if chess logically represents an important part of the scenaristic stakes, the spot of the show especially sheds light on the numerous problems encountered by Beth Harmon beyond this game/sport, for which she acts as a true genius. It is first about her difficult childhood, and experiences in an orphanage that will leave her with many repercussions.
Relational difficulties also, due in particular to his damaged personality, his atypical character, and a form of social incapacity, which can regularly resemble pretension.
These characteristics are also mixed with money worries, various addictions that have accumulated over the years, or the difficulty of imposing oneself as a woman (gifted, what’s more) in a time and a discipline where it was already better to be a man… As much as to tell you that the obstacles on the road to success – and quite simply to one’s personal well-being – are numerous.
As the lead actress herself aptly put it: “The Queen’s Gambit isn’t really about the game of chess, it’s about the genius award. For if Harmon’s mastery of chess brings him satisfaction, money and fame, there are many downsides to the medal, which I will let you fully discover by yourself.
But let’s go back to chess if you don’t mind. First of all, I would like to emphasize that a real effort has been made by the production to ensure that the amateurs of this activity do not tear their hair out. Consultants, such as former champion Garry Kasparov – just that – intervened to make sure that everything was realistic and plausible.
Don’t panic for the beginners though, it is quite possible to enjoy the series without knowing anything about chess. The show could well create vocations, who knows.
A crazy realization and a very strong rhythm
Then, if The Queen’s Gambit is solid in its purpose, it is just as solid by its luxurious coating. Between its grandiose period decors and its sublime costumes, which will delight fashion lovers, the realization entirely ensured by the co-creator of the show Scott Frank (who has already signed the excellent western series Godless for Netflix) is to be damned.
The staging, the photography, the lights: everything is divine, as much in the slowest and most posed shots as in the more rhythmic and intense scenes during chess matches, just as brilliant. Thanks to a skilful sense of editing, impeccable acting and a remarkable soundtrack, all in piano, wind and strings, by Carlos Rafael Rivera (who also worked on Godless), the slightest confrontation above a stage is a delight of intensity, tension and suspense despite the static aspect of the chess game.