There’s been so much stupidity. During our first lock-down for the Pandemic, many of us streamed the Soap Opera-Reality Show-Trash Can Fire that was Tiger King. I could feel my brain turning to mush with every addictive insane episode and finally had to stop. Once life began to slowly inch back to “normal”, there were so many people gathering unmasked–at bars, in frat houses, at weddings. One wedding in Maine that had 85 attendees resulted in 197 COVID cases and 7 deaths. A wedding that ended in 7 funerals that couldn’t happen due to a Pandemic. Tragic and avoidable deaths.
We had an election. As predicted, our Game Show Host refused to abdicate his presidential golf cart. His supporters turned out in unmasked droves to protest the “rigged election”, chanting and waving signs — spreading infection and demeaning Democracy. There are people in the Midwest who, even as they’re hospitalized for COVID-19, claim that it’s a “hoax” or that the hospital “gave it to them to fulfill their quotas”. Many states have had to reinstate restrictions as case numbers rise this Fall. All due to the obstinate refusal to wear masks or social distance.
When faced with all this stupidity, it’s difficult not to actively dislike a huge swath of humans. As chance would have it fortune smiled and gave us the limited dramatic series The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. A smart show. A thinking person’s show. A melancholy celebration of the fine line between genius and madness or addiction and brilliance. And it was popular. So popular that chess sets began to sell out in stores and online chess games saw record attendance. It was a balm to my soul that there were so many people enamored with this show and a good reminder that there are people who appreciate quality and substance.
The Queen’s Gambit was created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott based on Walter Tevis‘ novel of the same name. Walter Tevis wrote six novels; three of them were turned into movies (The Hustler, The Color of Money & The Man Who Fell to Earth). Here’s an oft-told story of a tortured genius but with the unique setting in the world of competitive chess, with amazing costumes (Gabriele Binder), sumptuous cinematography (Steven Meizler) and brilliant production design and art direction. It’s the performance of the young actress, Isla Johnston, with her wide expressive eyes, that elicits immediate concern for her well-being. Once the story drops her in an orphanage and reveals how her addiction to both downers and chess begins, you’re hooked.
When Anya Taylor-Joy inhabits the role as the older Beth Harmon, you’re rooting for this young woman. Beth is out of synch with her world and happiest when she’s at a chessboard. There’s a revealing line in an interview early on in the series. Beth talks about how there’s a beauty to the game but also how “safe” she feels in the 64 squares of the chessboard. One of the recurring motifs, Beth takes drugs to envision the chess board above her bed and to escape into her safety net of moving chess pieces. There’s a telling shot toward the end, as Beth’s addiction to alcohol and drugs is consuming her, when those images of the chess pieces are shadows projected down around her like a cage. Her safety net is now her prison.
The acting is brilliant across all the characters. From her chess mentor, the janitor (Bill Camp), shot in close-up from a lower angle to show how he looms as a stronge influence on her…to her love interest, the chess “rock star”, Bennie (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) with his long leather coat and knife at his hip, every character feels fully-realized and believable. Beth’s mothers are tragic figures but given enough back story that you can feel their pain and understand their journeys. The series is incredibly binge-able with its intriguing story, beautiful but damaged hero, and great period costumes. The filmmakers have found a way to make each chess game not just exciting, but sexy. Instead of making the audience feel dumb for not understanding the game, the narrative invites you in and makes you an accomplice; a cheerleader for Beth’s success.
A mini-series that can make the audience feel smarter? Now that’s an antidote to these challenging times!
Drinks With Films rating: 5 Gibson Martinis not to be mixed with downers (out of 5)
In an aside: I love Carina Chocano’s piece. I Want to Live in the Reality of ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Dec. 2, 2020 and featured in Sunday’s NYTimes Magazine. She lauds the friendships of the male characters who help make Beth Harmon a champion, and the pleasures of a woman who “succeeds in a man’s world without being harassed, assaulted, abused, ignored, dismissed, sidelined, robbed or forgotten. This story is so vanishingly rare in the real world that it comes across as utopian in fiction.”