The most exciting and gripping sports movie or show of the year isn’t a football thriller or a knock it out of the park baseball analytics hit. It’s about Chess. The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix) isn’t billed as a sports show, but it is. A gifted prodigy developing her gifts, playing at the highest levels all while battling a slew of personal demons. And I loved every move.
Alone, Abandoned, Amazing
Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy)is abandoned by her father, her mother dies, then is abandoned by her adoptive father, then her adoptive mother (Alma Wheatley) dies. Needless to say, she has abandonment issues. Between parents, she spends a few years at a Christian orphanage where she meets Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), the school’s janitor. In that basement he teaches her about chess, but she quickly ends up schooling him.
While at the orphanage, she becomes addicted to the green tranquilizers dispensed daily, until the state makes them illegal. When she’s high she visualizes chess games on the ceiling, and they seem to unlock her nine year old mind. The addiction grows as she starts to steal her adoptive mom’s prescriptions, chased with cocktails.
Eventually she starts entering tournaments and clearing the board with her competition. Her relationships are transactional: she wants companionship, the guys want the prodigy they see at the board. No one gets what they want.
But the journey is a great one to take. Taylor-Joy is amazing and is surrounded by characters worth watching. The show is often heartbreaking and humorous simultaneously. The higher her star rises the deeper she falls into addiction.
Yet none of it is cliché. I was never once taken out of the moment by lazy dialogue or something that seemed out of place. From the clothing to the cars to the set design, every detail is spot on in a way you only see in top tier productions (The Crown comes to mind).
A Lot of Movie Pieces
I knew nothing about Chess before watching The Queen’s Gambit and I still know nothing, tho I may be able to fake my way through a brief conversation at a cocktail party. But that’s okay. While a basic working knowledge of football or baseball is helpful when watching Draft Day or Field of Dreams, you can get by even if you’ve never watched a down or an inning.
The same is true with The Queen’s Gambit. You may vaguely know that a pawn is less important than the Queen and that’s about it. But that doesn’t matter, turns out Chess is very exciting. A lot of that goes to extremely talented editing. From Speed Chess to the more cerebral matches, each is shot with the purpose of making sure we understand that each move, each glance, each middle-game nuance is important. From a point-of-view standpoint, it’s on par with the iconic Friday Night Lights.
Eyes on the Prizes
Beth steamrolled to championships and The Queen’s Gambit is likely to steamroll through awards season. I see it as a lock to get nominations for Limited Series at the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, Critic’s Choice and at the Emmys. Anya will get Best Actress nominations all around, and it would be a crime if Bill Camp’s work as her mentor was overlooked as a supporting actor. Alma Wheatley should get recognized for her role as the troubled adopted mom.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
I usually try to choose a drink associated with a character, but Beth drank everything. Everything. So I’m going with a shot of Absinthe. It’s green (like her pills) and if. you get the right brand, it’ll have you seeing things on the ceiling as well!