The Queen’s Gambit

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Anya Taylor-Joy is amazing. For my money she was the perfect Magik in The New Mutants (2020). She’s been equally as good in The Witch (2015) and Emma (2019); but in the Netflix mini-series The Queen’s Gambit (2020) she really gets to shine as Beth Harmon.

Scott Frank, who helmed The Queen’s Gambit, doesn’t shine so brightly unfortunately. His idea that every locale have a different color scheme feels like an afterthought executed in post which desaturates every image to varying degrees. Frank also has a penchant for cutting away from Anya Taylor-Joy right in the middle of an important emotional scene which is just baffling (I’m thinking specifically of the scene on the phone at the end of episode four). When you combine these style choices with his “feel-good” sports movie bravado you’re left watching something so plastic that it becomes ever more difficult to bridge the distance between spectator and subject.

After episode four, when Marielle Heller leaves the cast, The Queen’s Gambit really spirals off the rails. What began as an effective dramatic character study devolves into a highly sentimental and toxic depiction of drug addiction (the absolute antithesis of Walter Tevis’ source novel) with an ending so saccharine that it would embarrass Remember The Titans (2000). It’s a real shame because until episode five begins The Queen’s Gambit is so compelling; it’s a feminist series audiences need and want right now.

I would have loved to have had more experience with the chess matches as well. I understand that it wouldn’t be commercial for Scott Frank to treat chess the way Jacques Rivette treats painting in La Belle Noiseuse (1991), but it would have been far more engrossing and suspenseful. There is probably a better middle ground between the way Frank did shoot those sequences, as if Anya Taylor-Joy were disarming a bomb, and Rivette’s long takes of Emmanuelle BĂ©art and Michel Piccoli.

If The Queen’s Gambit weren’t so in tune with the zeitgeist I doubt it would be getting the kind of unanimous praise I’ve been seeing. The redeeming facet of The Queen’s Gambit is surely the acting (with the exception of Thomas Brodie-Sangster) of the ensemble. This is a series you see once, remember for awhile, but ultimately forget about.