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Anya Taylor-Joy Is Exceptional In The Queen’s Gambit, A Thrilling New Series About… Chess?

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BY October 30, 2020
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In a year that has seen very few new releases in movie theaters or on television, viewers are desperate for some escapist content. And the number one show currently on Netflix delivers with The Queen’s Gambit. The limited series is based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis of the same name. The series stars a variety of familiar genre actors at the top of their game. It also accomplishes the considerable feat of making the game of chess thrilling to watch on-screen. Let’s take a look at The Queen’s Gambit, and find out why it should be your next weekend Netflix binge.

Anya Taylor-Joy Is A Marvel In The Queen’s Gambit

The Queen's Gambit Netflix Image via Netflix

At the center of the series is actress Anya Taylor-Joy, who rose to fame thanks to films like The Witch and Split. She is also a core member of The New Mutants, one of the few superhero films that came out in 2020. The actress was also recently cast as a young Furiosa in the upcoming Mad Max prequel. Taylor-Joy has covered a lot of ground so far in her short career, but her performance in The Queen’s Gambit is one of her best.

Anya Taylor-Joy is astounding as young chess prodigy Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit. She speaks volumes over every chessboard without ever saying a word. Taylor-Joy’s huge expressive eyes do a huge amount of the acting in these pivotal scenes. Every quirk of an eyebrow, or the way she folds her hand delicately under her chin to concentrate tells us all we need to know about her state of mind. This is by far the most mature acting that Taylor-Joy has given in her career so far. She transitions seamlessly from teenager to complicated adult, and barely ever changes her hairstyle. The difference is shown in her self-confidence as she grows more comfortable in her abilities.

The Price Of Genius In The Queen’s Gambit

The Queen's Gambit Image via Netflix

The series covers Beth’s life from an orphanage in Kentucky where she learned to play chess with the janitor. The classic gruff old mentor played by veteran character actor Bill Camp. Beth is clearly a gifted and intelligent child. But her budding talents go hand in hand with a growing dependency on the ‘vitamins’ that the orphanage feeds her. At the tender age of nine years old, she becomes addicted to the little green pills handed out every day. The vitamins turn out to be tranquilizers, and Beth is convinced that she needs them in order to excel at chess. The series gives us a study in addiction, as well as the madness and self-destructive tendencies associated so often with genius.

At night, Beth takes her pills and watches the chessboard come to life in the shadows on the ceiling above her bed. The cinematography of The Queen’s Gambit is consistently excellent. However, it is in these moments of genius that the show feels like it begins to edge into surreal fantasy. Although this is not a genre show, it has many of the tropes of sci-fi and fantasy. Beth even has a classic superhero origin story, an orphan rising from obscurity due to some inherent mysterious abilities. A gruff old mentor. A dead mother with a history of both brilliance and mental illness. And the way that Beth can see the path of the game laid out before her does feel almost supernatural.

But this is not a genre show. It is grounded in the stark reality of grief, addiction, and madness. But never once does it fall into despair. This is a show about overcoming your demons and proving your worth. And it is the perfect escapist content for anyone who needs a dose of hope right now.

An Ensemble Cast of Genre Actors Take On New Roles

Image via Netflix

Along her journey, Beth makes few friends although she does attract many admirers. She tells herself over and over that it is best to be alone. But she finds herself part of a strange family that she never asked for. First is the character of Jolene, played by actress Moses Ingram. She is the only real friend that Beth makes at the orphanage. Their relationship feels like real sisterhood born from growing up together with no one to rely on but each other. Ingram is excellent in this role, one of her first major roles on television.

But it is the genre actors who surprised me by showing up in this series. First up is Harry Melling, who has come a long way from playing Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter franchise. Melling is a fellow chess player (there will be a theme here) who initially dismisses Beth before witnessing her genius firsthand. Melling makes a swift transition from pompous jerk to caring friend. He brings an unexpected warmth and nuance to the role that makes him stand out from the crowd of other chess players. His vulnerability and insecurity is a dramatic counterpoint to Beth’s growing cockiness and indestructible attitude.

The Queen's Gambit Netflix Image via Netflix

Also appearing in The Queen’s Gambit is the perpetually youthful Thomas Brodie-Sangster. The actor has come a long way from portraying Jojen Reed in Game of Thrones. His performance in The Queen’s Gambit is an unexpected delight, and also one of his best performances to date. Sangster fully inhabits the role of fellow chess prodigy Benny Watts. The British actor swaggers his way onscreen in a leather jacket and cowboy hat, and a very believable American accent. (Apparently Brodie-Sangster has a deep love for motorcycles and leather jackets in real life. So I’m guessing he had a heavy hand in the development of his character’s appearance.) In the role of Watts, the former child actor turns in one of the most mature performances that I’ve ever seen from him. This is a common thread throughout the acting in The Queen’s Gambit, young people who deliver performances far beyond their years.

How Do We Make Chess Exciting To Watch?

The Queen's Gambit Image via Netflix

Perhaps one of the biggest feats that The Queen’s Gambit pulls off is the way they make the games of chess exciting to watch. The novel by Walter Tevis is not based on any historical figures (sadly, Beth Harmon is not a real person). But it was drawn from the author’s own experiences both playing chess and dealing with drug addiction. Numerous attempted adaptations of the novel have been made over the years, but this is the first time that The Queen’s Gambit has truly come to life on-screen.

The series is set during the 1960’s, so although there are televisions and music aplenty there is still a fervor of excitement around tabletop games. There are certainly some repeated motifs, such as the crowd that slowly gathers around Beth during every chess tournament. There are plenty of young men who watch with awe and murmured whispers of astonishment everytime she moves a piece on the board. But no two games ever feel the same, and despite the slow pace of chess they rarely feel boring.

The cinematography does a lot of work here. With long camera lenses zooming in on the rooks and knights as if they are larger than life figures themselves. The creative use of the CGI and surrealist imagery that allows us into Beth’s mind also injects elements of the fantastical. The actors work with their eyes, and small movements of hand that indicate indecision or confidence. Chess is treated like a sport in The Queen’s Gambit, with enthralled spectators who hold their breath and watch every movement carefully. It is honestly thrilling to watch, and a huge element of that is the joy of just watching someone who is good at what they do and watching them perform well.

The Queen's Gambit Image via Netflix

From the outset of the series, we know where Beth is going to end up. We know that she will achieve success in her field, but the tension comes from seeing how she gets there. How she deals with her own demons and learns to trust both herself and others to forge her own path. It is a beautiful and thrilling series to watch, with outstanding acting and cinematography. A series like this is rare, and will be unlikely to get another season (the limited series covers the entirety of the novel) so be sure to check it out on Netflix today.

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ReviewsTV ShowsAnya Taylor-JoyLimited SeriesNetflixstreamingTabletop GamesThe Queen's Gambit

Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.

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