If you watch as many movies as I have, it’s always a treat to find something that grabs your attention with sumptuous production design, lovely photography and finely-tuned acting all wrapped up in a story that explores a rarely touched upon subject.
All of that and more is found in “The Queen’s Gambit,” a new miniseries streaming on Netflix based upon a 1983 novel by the late Walter Tevis. The seven episodes are directed by Scott Frank, who created the show with Allan Scott. The story is executed with intelligence, wit and a high level of consistent visual artistry. Although made as a miniseries, it ranks as a long form piece of cinema.
The fictional story, set between the 1950s and1960s, is about a young woman from Kentucky named Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), who was orphaned at age 8 and is seen as quiet and sullen, but who appears to have a vivid inner life filled with curiosity and interest in the world around her. That world, as a child, is rather limited and as confining as a prison, until the day she gets punished and sent to the basement to pound erasers (kids today may not have any idea that classrooms once had big chalkboards, chalk and erasers).
There she meets Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), the janitor for the orphanage.
On his breaks, Mr. Shaibel plays chess by himself. But, when Beth sees what he’s doing, she immediately becomes fascinated with the intricacies of the game and how it is a world unto itself, defined by 64 squares and a near-infinite number of moves, with names and strategies that give entrance to a captivating universe over which she has total control.
It isn’t long before she is besting Mr. Shaibel, who is startled by Beth’s talent at such a young age. He introduces her to a teacher from a local high school who arranges special trips away from the orphanage to play with kids in the chess club. Here, she dazzles and amazes the other students and soon rises in their ranks.
Back at the orphanage, though, a way the directors have chosen to keep their kids in line is to give them “vitamins” every day. These actually are a steady diet of tranquilizers that turn the kids into drug addicts. Things turn desperate when the State of Kentucky finds out what they’ve been doing and outlaws this practice. Of course, this has dire consequences.
Beth is eventually adopted by Alma Wheatley (played by film director Marielle Heller) and her husband who is barely seen. Alma is an interesting character who seems at first to be the stereotypical TV mom-type from the era of “Leave It To Beaver” and “The Donna Reed Show,” but Alma seems to need Beth as a companion because she doesn’t have a job outside the home and spends her days housekeeping, watching TV and drinking.
This addition parallels the needs inherent in Beth’s outlook. She keeps a stash of pills in her room. But when Alma’s husband leaves on a business trip that becomes extended and extended until he basically abandons them, she is truly lost. That is, until she learns that Beth can win serious money winning. By now, Beth is becoming a self-assured young woman who has started to win serious tournaments and has captured the interest of the international chess world. Alma is in her glory now because she is able to accompany her daughter on trips to big cities in the USA and abroad. She and Beth also become companions as well.
Beth soon starts looking at just what it means to be a master of chess, and of her own world.
This is Anya Taylor-Joy’s movie in every way. Her trademark captivating eyes and confident demeanor obviously bring her character to life. But, it is the absolute precision she applies to the way she portrays that character which is absolutely stunning. You simply cannot take your eyes from her in every scene.
One note about the chess games depicted in the show, which, according to imdb.com, are set up for real by National Master Bruce Pandolfini and Grandmaster Garry Kasparov, who acted as consultants. You may not be a chess player to “get” the moves and importance of various openings and the methods players use to win, but it is the mastery of the director and production team that pulls you in.
“The Queen’s Gambit” is rated TV-MA for language, mild sexual content, drug use and period smoking.
Taos News grade: A+.
Also streaming …
DOC NYC: America’s Largest Documentary Festival
TCA Big Screen @ Home
Cost for rental $10 per film
Available now through Nov. 19.
Join us for DOC NYC, the largest documentary film festival in the U.S. This year’s festival will take place completely online, so audiences across the country can tune in and watch films anytime between Nov. 11-19.
The 2020 festival includes 107 feature-length documentaries, including 23 World Premieres, plus 15 shorts programs. Fifty three percent of the features are directed or co-directed by women and 34 percent of features are directed by BIPOC.
Almost all films will also be accompanied by an exclusive filmmaker Q&A included in the ticket.
For rental and more information, visit tcataos.org and locate Big Screen @ Home in the drop-down menu.
The Taos Center for the Arts will provide patrons with a discount code for $2 off tickets to any film in the festival (capacity permitting). Just enter the following code at checkout: DOCNYC-TAOS.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Mitchell Storyteller 7 Theatres in Taos and the Taos Community Auditorium remain closed for the time being in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Until they reopen, we will focus on movies available online.