There is a scene in one of early episodes of The Queen’s Gambit, where the teenaged protagonist Beth Harmon isn’t impressed with a magazine article featuring her as a chess prodigy. “It’s mostly about me being a girl,” she says to her adoptive mother.
That is a rather telling moment in a series which reimagines a female child chess prodigy in the 60s but doesn’t weave a narrative around the sex and gender of Beth Harmon. The Queen’s Gambit, the seven-part mini-series released by Netflix in the second half of October, is a masterclass in making inclusive cinema which does not use inclusivity as a prop. It shows all the characters through an empathetic lens while rendering full justice to the gender, race and Cold War politics of the era.
The series is adapted from a book of the same name by Walter Tevis that was published in 1983. Since I have not read the book, it is difficult to ascertain how faithful this adaptation is to the book, but the show was so compelling that it made me not want to read the book at all. No hard feelings for people waiting to announce that the book was better, but I absolutely loved watching Tevis’s story being brought to life by Allan Scott and Scott Frank in their Netflix series. (Full disclosure: These feelings have been compounded by a failed attempt at watching Mira Nair’s adaptation of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.)
The Queen’s Gambit follows the journey of recently orphaned, nine-year-old Beth Harmon, a role played by Isla Johnston with measured subtlety, nuance and innocence. Beth taken into an orphanage and gets enchanted by the chess board when she sees the orphanage custodian, William Shaibel (Bill Camp) playing chess in the basement. Mr Shaibel first refuses to indulge Beth’s wish to play, but gives in when he discovers that Beth has already grasped a lot about the game by just watching him play. While Beth gets acquainted with the game in the basement that will become her defining passion in the years to come, on the upper floors of the orphanage, she falls under the grip of tranquillisers pills given to the girls as ‘vitamins’.
As the story progresses, Beth’s passion for chess gets intertwined with her addiction to tranquillisers as it helps her imagine a chess board on the ceiling of her room where she plays every night. This detail is beautifully crafted into the screenplay and is a visual treat that lends a thriller-like quality to the story.
Little Beth is soon replaced by the teenage Beth – played by Anya Taylor-Joy who is absolutely brilliant and owns every inch of the screen from the moment she appears. Teenaged Beth is adopted by a couple for reasons unknown because her adoptive father leaves his wife and newly adoptive daughter. The relationship that forms between Beth and her adoptive mother Alma is one of the most heartwarming aspects of the series. Alma supports, manages and cheers Beth as she enthrals and takes over the world of chess. Despite the power dynamics, it is a relationship between equals – a rare and refreshing triumph.
I also thoroughly enjoyed watching Jolene, a black teenage girl from the orphanage who befriends young Beth and provides her some warmth (and guide to tranquilliser pills) in a rather cold and frigid halls of Methuen Home for Girls.
Just like the relationship between Beth and Alma, The Queen’s Gambit treats every relationship – professional and personal – that Beth forms with care, caution and complexity. Each character that comes in contact with Beth is neatly fleshed out, which makes the viewer invested in the whole story. Of course, I was rooting for Beth to win every match she played, but I also felt for her opponents she ruthlessly destroys.
The Queen’s Gambit is a difficult story to tell. But the way the creators tie these different threads together without reducing any of the themes to mere tokenism is what makes it an exciting watch. The story doesn’t sacrifice individuals to become black and white caricatures – demonising one to highlight the virtues of the other.
When Beth takes over the hugely male dominated arenas of chess, men who are first apprehensive soon become allies in her quest to become the world’s greatest player. The series critiques the system that promotes gender inequalities and sexism rather than shifting the gaze onto individual follies where the argument often gets lost in hashtags like ‘not all men’.
Unlike physical games where the drama on screen can be derived from the action and movements on fields, chess is a cerebral game which can have the players glued to their seats for hours on end with poker faces. However, The Queen’s Gambit had me on edge the whole time. I don’t know much about chess, so there I was googling what a ‘Sicilian Defence’ and ‘Bishop and Knight Mate’ are. The show will make you want to stare at your ceiling with the hope that a chess board might magically appear and transform you into Beth.
Bhawna Jaimini is an architect, writer and activist in making. She works closely with the residents of some of the most marginalised neighbourhoods to improve their built environment.
Featured image credit: Netflix