Daily Recco, December 14: The Queen's Gambit is the perfect move
The Queen's Gambit is the perfect game of chess, emotions and vulnerability of a teenaged girl prodigy in a world of 64 squares dominated by men.
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Ever heard of losing a battle to win the war? Well, that's exactly what a gambit is in chess — sacrificing pieces strategically to win the game. The queen's gambit is probably the most popular gambit in the game. Though most gambits are said to be unsound against the perfect play, the queen's gambit is an exception.
And it is this move that the protagonist in the Netflix series — The Queen's Gambit — uses to try and secure her win in the last game against the world champion chess player and her strongest opponent in an international tournament.
The coming-of-age period drama, set in 1950s Lexington, revolves around the story of a nine-year-old child prodigy, Beth Harmon, who loses her mother in an accident and is admitted to an orphanage — Methuen Home For Girls. There she meets a lonely janitor — Mr Shaibel (Bill Camp) — an experienced chess player who plays with himself at the basement of the orphanage. Making it her mission to learn chess from him, she sneaks away from classes at the Home to persuade him. He relents very reluctantly and takes her under his wing, and is amazed by her genius when she begins challenging his moves with her own, in a matter of days of starting her chess coaching. Her innocence is disarming when she does not realise her own gift and asks Shaibel if she is any good.
However, Beth is battling her own set of demons. While Mr Shaibel provides her with the emotional support, Beth has to deal with the psychological trauma and dependency on drugs; the drugs that she was administered in the orphanage as a routine (apparently common in that era) — tranquilisers that enhance her visualisations and help her in her game. A teenage Beth (essayed brilliantly by Anya Taylor-Joy) is eventually adopted by the very kind Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller) and her husband, who encourage her to participate (and win) in the local tournaments and then the national before progressing to the international tournaments.
The Queen’s Gambit is as much about relationships, trauma, mental health and drug addiction, as it is about the game. The backdrop is chess and Beth taking on her competitors and proving her mettle as a young girl in a world dominated by men can be compared to each of her ingenious moves in the game, leading to a win hands down. The casting is outstanding, the dialogues are powerful (Sample these: "I feel safe in an entire world of 64 squares." or "Chess isn't always competitive; chess can also be beautiful.") and the direction and camerawork (mirroring the actors' faces in the game, for instance, instead of the chessboard) make the lay viewer as much a part of the story as a seasoned player.
With all the right moves in this adaptation of Walter Tevis’s eponymous novel, Scott Frank goes on to prove that he is the grandmaster of direction and screenplay. The series is streaming on Netflix.