Why We All Love Netflix's The Queen's Gambit.
When you consider the amount of choice we have on our modern streaming services, it takes something special for a show to stand out and grab the collective consciousness. Looking at our media and social network feeds The Queens Gambit seems to have managed just that. With its lavish set design, beautiful cinematography and imaginative character portrayals the show seems to have arrived, amidst a global pandemic, at just the right time. So what is it about a chess drama that we've all found so appealing....?
THE THEMES ARE UNIVERSAL (And handled well)
Grief, addiction, trauma, found families, successful women in a male dominated field, genius is the same as madness. All of this is in the drama. If you add sex, love, relationships and triumph over tragedy then we have a potent mix of all the ingredients that make up most acclaimed dramas. However, more than these universal themes, the Queen's Gambit goes further by handling them well.
The feminist elements are there for all to see, but the really potent feminist story line perhaps isn't in the lead characters success in a this male dominated world of Chess. That's instead to be found in the story of the central characters adoptive mother. Alma Wheatley played by Marielle Heller is a lonely housewife with an absent husband and her own vices. She adopts Beth as a daughter and much needed companion. The character of Alma is also an accomplished pianist who is never allowed to see her potential fulfilled. Her role in a patriarchal society is typical of what was expected of women at that time and is played with equal pathos and warmth by Heller. Despite her flaws, the character is relatable and very likeable, especially in her codependent yet supportive relationship with Beth. The shows theme's on addiction are also refreshingly non puritanical. Beth Harmon is addicted to both tranquilisers and alcohol. Yes, this does eventually take its toll on the characters story arc, but for most of the time her journey is more familiar with that of male protagonists in such dramas. See such stuff as Flight, Trainspotting, Withnail and I and Drugstore Cowboy. For a considerable time she rides the highs and they go hand in hand with her success. Of course that eventually does have to change. We're still talking prime time TV here. But it's handled in a refreshingly non judgemental way. There's no absolute dismal crash, there's no absolute redemption. There's just coping with support. And coping with support is enough.
IT'S A SPORTS MOVIE IN DISGUISE.
Most of us know very little about Chess as it's played at championship level. Or even how to play it at all. Yet most of us also know little about boxing, baseball or football at that level either, and there's a ton of movies about them. The clever trick the Queen's Gambit does to make the sporting action exciting, is to focus on the characters during the match as opposed to what the pieces on the board are doing. Anya Taylor-Joy apparently even put thought into how her character would move the pieces. She wanted it to appear both feminine and aggressive.
The Chess games are also filmed with dynamics and great cinematography. There's even a montage sequence similar to what you will find in absolutely every Rocky film ever made. It's the sports movie element we all expect in a movie, and cheer along when it arrives. The source material also comes from a writer of some pedigree. Walter Tevis has written a couple of sports novels that went on to become highly acclaimed films. Step forward The Hustler and The Colour Of Money. They also focused on a flawed central character. This time in the world of the pool hall. Interestingly Tevis also wrote The Man Who fell To Earth. A story about an alien who comes to earth in an attempt to save his planet but is seduced into addiction. David Bowie famously played the central character in the movie of the same title. There would appear to be a common theme in Tevis's work. It's probably coincidence that at times Taylor-Joy's performance can also appear ethereal and other worldly. Or maybe they did very successfully tap into Tevis's writing on the themes of alienation and isolation.
THE CAST IS EXCELLENT.
The Queen's Gambit is littered with great performances. Anya Taylor-Joy puts in a mesmerizing lead performance as Beth Harmon. If the eyes are the window to the soul, then Taylors eyes are the display windows in a high end department store. She can convey a lot by doing very little. By only slightly narrowing her eyelids, she appears to destroy the male chess opponents she comes up against. She can also move dangerous to flirtatious while barely moving a muscle. Along with that she believably portrays the delicate nature and vulnerability of a damaged soul, while never losing sight of the powerful inner strengths the central character has. This is her latest lead role but she's previously shown huge diversity in fare such as arthouse horror movie The Witch, Peaky Blinders and 2020's period drama Emma. She also has some significant productions in the pipeline. Along with Taylor-Joy, much of the male cast is like a Geeks top ten wish list. And as we well know, Geeks rule in modern entertainment. Picking just two of her opponents and love interests, we have Harry Melling, who was famous for playing Harry Potters spoiled cousin Dudley Dursley. Since then he seems to be carving a career as a fine character actor and his turn in the Queen's Gambit is highly sympathetic to the needs of the central character. It looks like he's leaving the child actor label well in the past. Then we find another Geek and former child actor in the shape of Thomas Brodie-Sangster. Yes he is the kid from Love Actually. Just remove the moustache and he looks exactly the same. He's also got a lengthy resume in film from that early role. Again another strong performance, this one less sympathetic, but in line with all the other characters. But, the one thing all these characters and performances have in common, as do most of the characters, is the exude intelligence. In fact, intelligence may be one of the big appealing aspects of the Queen's Gambit. In these days of Trumpism, populism and deliberate weaponised ignorance, a big part of the shows appeal is that it reminds us we do all in fact have brains. That's a good touchstone to reconnect with in these uncertain times.