Based on the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis, The Queen’s Gambit is a miniseries following the life of a young Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) who discovers and masters the game of chess… at a cost.
With this miniseries, Scott Frank manages to take the game of chess, one that is typically not attributed to being exciting, and turns it into just that. He makes the act of watching chess rather thrilling and insightful to where I feel even people who aren’t necessarily fans of chess will start paying attention as if it’s a full on sport – which in a lot of ways, it is. The actual chess elements of the show – the tournaments, speed matches, etc. – are some of the more riveting scenes in the series. On one hand due to the fact that I’m a fan of the game, and on another due to how Elizabeth Harmon’s game changes based on what struggles she is facing in her life. In a series that touches heavily on feminism, addiction and alcoholism, it would be easy for the chess to be more of a side element that helps move the story from place to place. However, the chess works in conjunction with those themes – as an avenue for displaying the smaller details about her character and how they impact her life.
From a storytelling perspective, this series is outstanding. It hardly makes a wrong move, always calculated and always moving with a clear goal in mind. This is evident through the exquisite use of foreshadowing and the connecting of smaller details that really tie together the majority of the key story beats. As with the game of chess, predictability goes out the window as the story moves in some creative directions, pushing the character of Elizabeth Harmon into some pretty tough situations throughout the series. This deep exploration of her life goes into the highest highs and the lowest lows, weaving through the many ups and downs she experiences at such a young age. The narrative follows Elizabeth as she grows, and as she does, I feel like the storytelling continues to get stronger. As more people come into her life and her daily struggles get more impactful, the narrative beats are handled near-flawlessly, despite the fact that there’s more to juggle.
That being said, it’s not perfect. There are a couple of tangents that the plot delves into, here and there, that aren’t as strong as the core narrative at that time. Most of the time, these are shorter tangents that don’t take over an entire episode and they’re largely forgettable, allowing the story and the characters to push on. Despite the little goofs here and there, the series ends strongly with a spectacular finale. This finale captures, in 1 hour, the entire essence of everything that came before it – from characters to minor plot details. It’s a stellar finale that reaffirms the incredible foreshadowing and attention to detail that has been well executed through the series. It successfully brings everything full circle and makes the journey well worth it.
There’s no talking about this series without highlighting the completely mesmerising lead performance from Anya Taylor-Joy who commands the screen every time she’s on, without fail. Considering everything her character goes through, her performance calls for a number of tough emotionally-driven scenes that she pulls off incredibly well. It’s amazing to see how she very subtly alters her performance as the character grows and has new experiences in life. She plays the character from 15 through to what I imagine are her mid-20s, and from the way she speaks to her mannerisms, she displays the character’s growth amazingly well. Alongside her for the majority of the series is Marielle Heller, who plays her adoptive mother. The chemistry of these two is fantastic and they show how this mother-daughter relationship grows and flourishes over time. Marielle has traded in the directors chair for a spot in the limelight and is captivating in every scene. Her character goes through her own fair share of ups, downs, trauma and happiness and Marielle does well to illustrate exactly what she’s feeling in every moment.
In the supporting roles, Harry Melling, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Bill Camp and Matthew and Russel Dennis Lewis are especially great through all of their scenes alongside Anya. They each bring something unique and make a lasting impact on the narrative even if there’s multiple episodes that they don’t appear in.
I must also highlight that this series is absolutely visually stunning. Everything from the period-specific set design to the costuming and hair and makeup is pristine. They have exquisitely recreated 1960s USA so authentically that you can’t help but wonder where they got the time machine from. From the wide backdrops to the interior sets, every detail is carefully designed to suck you right into this world of chess. It’s just beautiful in every sense of the word and a true technical achievement. As intricate as a game of chess, the cinematography, helmed by Steven Meizler, is spellbinding. The revolving shots around the chess players and the intimate close-ups enhance the thrilling nature of those chess scenes.
In the end, The Queen’s Gambit is an endlessly gripping chess-based series full of joy, tragedy, love and heartbreak. Led by a stellar performance from Anya Taylor-Joy, the series takes her character’s journey down a number of roads that are both unexpected and absolutely fantastic. The attention to detail in the storytelling is evident through each and every episode, especially in the way that everything is tied together in the finale. Amazingly consistent the entire way through, this is a thrilling, dramatic, well-acted and exciting chess series that is not to be missed.