Friday, December 4, 2020

Checkered: The Queen’s Gambit

Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen's Gambit. (Photo: Phil Bray/Netflix)

At first, maybe even second, the hit new Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit seems fresh and exciting. The somber fairy-tale atmosphere of its early episodes portends something new, something important. The late 50s through the 60s settings are impeccably art-directed and handsomely shot (by Kai Koch and Steven Meisler, respectively); the soundtrack skillfully employs obscure, yet still familiar, pop music, with the odd classical composition (e.g., Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1”) thrown in for sophistication; and the creators make the shrewd choice of having their protagonist become a clothes horse as she ages, allowing for smashing retro fashions to be on display. (Hey, it worked like gangbusters for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.)

But The Queen’s Gambit isn’t content to be a fairy tale. Its story of an orphaned, institutionalized young girl from Kentucky who discovers a proclivity for the game of chess soon becomes mired in feminist clichés, and worse yet, turns into triumph-of-the-spirit sentimentality as our spunky young heroine, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy of Emma and The Witch), overcomes addiction and her own narcissism to succeed where no woman (and very few men) has succeeded before. Yawn.

Beth is orphaned at nine when her brilliant, troubled mother drives head-on into a truck on a narrow bridge, trying to kill both Beth and herself. She succeeds only in the latter: Beth is miraculously spared with “hardly a scratch on her” and is promptly shuttled off to a gloomy Christian orphanage, run by the repressed and repressive Mrs. Deardorff (Christiane Seidel), who seems to be nursing some private sorrow of her own. (We never find out what that might be.) This is the 1950s, so the girls in her charge are given daily doses of tranquilizers to keep them in line. Beth is immediately befriended by an older girl, Jolene (Moses Ingram), who teaches her that if she only pretends to swallow the tranquilizer, she can stockpile them for a much greater high later on. It’s the Marshmallow Test, institutional-orphanage version. (The stockpiling technique must be magical indeed, because she appears to take six or seven pills every night.)

Later, when she’s sent to the basement to clean the chalkboard erasers, she encounters the orphanage’s janitor, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), hunched over a chess board. He soon discovers that Beth is a prodigy, despite his initial declaration that “girls do not play chess.” Beth is also aided by her drug habit: when she hallucinates under the influence, she sees a chess board on the ceiling and is able to go through moves and strategies. (I’m no expert, but I’ve never met anyone whose thinking improved when stoned.)

Shaibel introduces her to the local high school’s chess club advisor, who suggests that she play simultaneous games with the members of the club. She encounters another crisis right before the scheduled high-school visit, when the Kentucky legislature outlaws the tranquilizing of orphans, so she can’t continue her nightly drugged-out “lessons.” She’s without her usual crutch before the biggest test of her abilities so far.

The staging of her visit to the high school is emblematic of many of the problems I have with this series. When the high-school boys enter the room where the boards have been set up and where Beth awaits her chance to administer multiple ass-whoopings, they all remain standing, silent, with their arms crossed, glaring at her. I’m pretty certain that no matter what era we’re in, public high-school boys never ever enter a room silently, no matter how introverted these chess nerds may be. In fact, since this is probably the first time all day they’re in a space where no jock tormentors reside, where they finally get to congregate with like-minded dweebs, they’d be chatting and joshing with each other. Whatever their teacher may have told them about Beth, their most likely reaction to her would be indifference. They wouldn’t greet her with overt hostility. But the director and writer want to make a statement, so we get heavy-handed visual cues about 50s sex roles.

As the young Beth, Isla Johnston possesses a wary stillness and innate suspiciousness. Her underplaying serves her well enough, but it doesn’t allow for much range. Taylor-Joy takes over the role just before Beth is adopted by a couple, the Wheatleys, who lost a child young, resulting in Alma Wheatley’s rather severe depression. Her husband hopes the adoption will better his wife’s condition, but he ends up not sticking around long enough to find out. As his wife spends her days awash in tranquilizers and early-afternoon cocktails, he takes ever-longer business trips until one day he informs his wife via long distance that he’s never coming back: Beth and Alma can have the house, but otherwise they’re on their own. Taylor-Joy does successfully capture the awkward physicality of teenage girl in these scenes.

Marielle Heller and Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen's Gambit. (Photo: Phil Bray/Netflix)

Alma (Marielle Heller) is a pianist of some talent but was never able to do anything with it, due to severe stage fright. Heller is the acclaimed director of such films as The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. In what appears to be her first major acting role, she gives a wonderful performance as a foster mother who gives her new teenage daughter exactly what she needs by expecting almost nothing from her and accepting her completely as she is. Beth is able to cut herself in on Alma’s prescription tranquilizers, but to its credit, the show avoids any easy moralizing about Alma’s inadequacies.

Beth is ridiculed by the popular girls at her new high school for her bargain-basement garb, and even worse, the school lacks a chess club. So Beth enters a local chess tournament, both to get back in the game and to earn some clothes money. She beats everyone there, and begins making a name for herself. Alma offers to be her manager, and in handling the travel arrangements and entry forms, she begins to find some purpose in her life, loving the glamor and excitement that international travel brings. Heller is good enough that when Alma is absent in the later episodes, the show suffers for it.

After that first win, Beth has the cash to start dressing better (much better), and she carries herself with more confidence and assurance. One of the facets viewers are probably responding to is Beth’s seeming ownership of her burgeoning sex drive. She loses her virginity to a much older college student, who’s in the Russian class she takes in anticipation of competing with the Soviet Grand Masters. She never sees him again: she has sex on her own terms, but those terms negate any real intimacy.

This leads to two odd interactions with men. At that first match, Beth is taken with a cute boy she bests, Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), who dabbles in chess but is an aspiring journalist by trade. When Townes next sees her, at another tournament, he invites her to his hotel room, ostensibly to photograph her for an article. She leaps at the opportunity, and the photo session is clearly a seduction, although you’re not sure who’s seducing whom. (It brings to mind the far sexier, and far more complex, seduction-by-camera scene in Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.) Townes and Beth are interrupted when Townes’s roommate appears, fresh from the pool. Beth instantly knows that Townes is gay and that this is his boyfriend. This puts her way ahead of the audience: nothing in Townes’ behavior suggests he’s gay, and he seems to be doing a bang-up job of seducing her. How would Beth have even been aware of homosexuality? Not from any of her classes, and not from any adult she’s encountered thus far. The roommate/boyfriend leaves, Townes looks sheepishly at Beth, and you’re left thinking, wait, what just happened?

Beth also has a friendship with a pair of twin brothers, Matt and Mike (Matthew and Russell Dennis Lewis), who man the registration desk at her first tournament. Despite their initial dismissal of her because of her gender, the three become friends. During a late-night poolside drink at a Mexico City tournament, there’s an undeniable erotic tension among them. You expect a threesome to happen, but it doesn’t. Since Beth isn’t shy about asking for what she wants sexually, it seems a cop-out, or a mistake, that nothing occurs. Her other boyfriends include a very good Harry Melling (one of the lesser Dursley siblings in the Harry Potter series), who cuts off the sex when he realizes Beth wants only a physical relationship, and Game of Throne’s Thomas Brodie-Sangster, playing one of the few opponents who has ever beaten her. Beth temporarily moves in with him to study the game, and he initially declines her sexual advances. Of course, he can hold out only so long.

The show is also getting lauded for its handling of the game of chess, but we don’t learn much beyond the fact that there’s both a middle game and an endgame (which isn’t that big a revelation); that some players (like Beth) are considered “intuitive”; and how that dual-clock gizmo you see in public park matches is used. In her first game with Shaibel, we do him see him defeat her in four moves with a strategy he calls “the Scholar’s Mate.” I learned it as “Blitzkrieg,” and my knowledge pretty much ends there. As does the show’s.

After the Mexico City Tournament, where Beth finally gets a chance to play the Russian world champion, Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski), but suffers two very different kinds of losses, we get the sequences I had hoped would be omitted. Beth’s addictions get the best of her, and once back home she spirals out of control, ignoring phone calls and aid of any kind. As if this weren’t bad enough, what pulls Beth out of her morass is a visit from none other than Jolene, her friend at the orphanage, whom we haven’t seen since. Jolene, an African American, is of course relegated to the role of rescuer to the troubled white girl. After some drivel about how they’re both “family,” Jolene pulls Beth out of her decline, fronts her the money to travel to Russia for the world championships, and sets her up to beat the Russkies. Additionally, all of her chess-playing ex-boyfriends join forces to help Beth battle her demons and become the chess player, and person, she was always meant to be. At least the 2004 Miracle, about the 1980 upset of the Soviet hockey team by an upstart American team, knew what kind of movie it was, upholding the conventions of sports movies while still managing to provide excitement and freshness. The Queen’s Gambit wants to be something more than a conventional sporting-triumph film, and it’s convinced a good many people that it is. But to me, its tacked-on feminist trappings, its threadbare depictions of addiction and recovery, and its descent into sentimentality doom the whole venture. (The ending sequence is especially ludicrous.) Director and writer Scott Frank (who wrote the script for Steven Soderbergh’s best movie, Out of Sight, so we know he’s prodigiously talented) also adds an archness about the 50s and the 60s that I find off-putting. (He’s adapting Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel, which I haven’t read, so I don’t know if those attitudes are in the source material or not.) We already know the 50s offered very few opportunities for women who didn’t want to be wives and mothers: we don’t need it spelled out. Worse, most of the episodes start off in flashback, with Beth’s dead mother (Chloe Pirries) voicing a particularly toxic worldview of both life and men to young Beth. These tidbits are meant to be ironic, but mostly they’re tiresome, more of the false profundity the series projects. Taylor-Joy is a great camera subject, she knows how to move, and the glamorous vintage ensembles she wears here are knockouts (the costuming is by Gabriele Binder), but I’m still not convinced of her acting ability. (Someone like the young Reese Witherspoon would have managed to do much more with this role. And you would have believed she was from Kentucky.) Ultimately, I found the show to be like Taylor-Joy’s performance: mostly surface, with not a lot going on underneath. The Queen’s Gambit doesn’t pay off.

Joe Mader has written on film and worked as a theater critic for various publications including the SF Weekly, The San Francisco Examiner,, and The Hollywood Reporter. He previously served as the managing director for the San Francisco theater company 42nd Street Moon. He currently works at Cisco Systems and writes on theater for his own blog, Scene 2.





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