My first produced play was a farce about intrigue among chess grandmasters. The climax, which I reckon was a bit of a coup de théâtre, involved the hero grandmaster facing off with the villain grandmaster over a game of chess. There was no board; the two characters stalked each other around the good guy’s living room, leaping onto furniture and barking out their moves: “Queen to rook five!” The entire match was played out, and if you were a deep chess person, theoretically you could follow it in your head, and it would be as suspenseful and fun as, say, the climactic sword-fight at the end of a production of Hamlet or Macbeth.
I cribbed the match from an actual one played by actual champions – I forget whom or from when. But I made sure to find a match that suited my players’ identities: I wanted the moves made to feel authentic, the kind of moves those actual characters would make. It was a long scene, and for people who couldn’t possibly follow the game in their heads (99% of us) there was a lot of jumping around and acting going on to keep them entertained; for the one percent (and that’s being very generous) that could follow the match, it played, I hoped, like the climactic boxing scene in a boxing movie, the final football game in a football film, etc.
So too, do the many chess games and snippets of, as played by the various competitors in The Queen’s Gambit, adhereto the sports movie formula: they are given enough screen-time to actually be appreciated, and are based on actual games that reflect the theoretical / fictional styles of the players. Chief among them is Beth Harmon, played spectacularly by Anya Taylor-Joy, an orphan in 1950s America who grows up to be a world champion. Her story is both a superhero girl-power adventure as she barrels her way up through the ranks of a very male sport, and an addiction drama: she loves her pills and, increasingly as I roll into the middle of the seven-episode limited series, her drink.
The period design is both gorgeous and a little over-the-top (most of the show was shot in Berlin-for-other-places, so there’s a lot of set dressing, both physical and digital, going on) and the same could be said for the drama. Subtle it is not. Nor nuanced. It’s the kind of show where a character is introduced by another character turning to a third character and saying, “Look, it’s X! He won the X tournament in 19XX and now he’s X.” Most of the dialogue is expositional and a lot of it is very clunky. One can see where most scenes, and most episodes, are headed. It’s unsubtle, obvious, on-the-nose.
But it’s also compelling, even compulsive: a classic Netflix binge. The plot is a page-turner (it’s based on a popular novel), Taylor-Joy is endlessly watchable, and the casting is really fun: every character, like Taylor-Joy, has an interesting-to-fascinating face. Most of the supporting cast are British, but their US accents are strong (as is Taylor-Joy’s) and they attack the material with gusto. It’s a sprawling drama with a lot of players and they’re all allowed to make their mark (and their move). In the main supporting role, of Beth’s adoptive mother Alma, Marielle Heller, best known as a director (Can You Ever Forgive Me?, A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood), is, as critics say a little too often, a “revelation.” In this case it’s true.
And then there’s the chess, treated seriously, with integrity, with respect. I suspect a lot of little girls will give the game a go thanks to this show (if they’re allowed to watch a show about an addict), and that alone is raison d’être. Pawn to Queen four!