Based on a novel by Walter Tevis, this superhit Netflix series released in October subtly bucks every cliché to create a delectable masterpiece.
Let’s start with the theme: Set in the 1960s, the Queen’s Gambit is about a fictional teenaged female chess prodigy called Elizabeth Harmon.
It is enough to smash a few stereotypes in one fell swoop.
Chess is a mental sport and doesn’t enjoy the same popularity as physical sports do. It is also a sport that is male dominated (almost all the grandmasters till date are male and there never has been a female world champion). Therefore, bringing it to centre stage through a woman player, who becomes a world champion in an era when most others of her gender were happy playing the second fiddle, at once sets the stage for a riveting drama.
Named after the oldest and most aggressive opening in the game of chess, the miniseries morphs into a cracking story also in part due to Harmon’s turbulent life.
Orphaned at eight when her reckless, single mother rams her car into a speeding trolley and kills herself, Harmon is packed off to an orphanage immediately. Gawky and aloof, she stumbles upon the game of chess in the basement of the home while cleaning the duster. Down there, an equally aloof janitor named Mr Shaibel plays the game all by himself. Harmon is instantly hooked and soon enough convinces Mr Shaibel to teach her.
The neurosis in Harmon’s mind, given her tragic loss, we do not get to see any. The chess board comprised of 64 squares, chess pieces and moves occupies every part of it. At night, after popping her tranquilising pills (something that is administered by the staff in the orphanage for an even disposition), she looks up at the ceiling and visualises the games. She learns like a maniac.
Chess and pills together help Harmon escape her dreary past and present. But the pills also lead to an addiction, something that eventually leads her to being banned from playing chess in the girls’ home.
Cleverly enough, the narrative finds a way to reintroduce her to the game.
After being adopted at 15 by a childless couple staying in suburban Lexington, she enters her first chess match with pros (mostly male). Since then, there’s no looking back.
The pills come to her rescue once again. So does her adoptive mother Alma, an exact antithesis of her fiercely independent biological mother who despised her biological father. Alma manages Harmon’s career while taking a 15 percent commission on her prize money. They share an odd bond and Alma’s untimely death nearly devastates Harmon, plunging her into alcoholism.
Complementing this interesting tale full of twists and turns is the retro palette, background score and outfits. All of those perfectly recreate the 1960s – be it the austere orphanage, the suburban life in Lexington or the fabulous cities of Paris, Brazil or Las Vegas where chess tournaments are held.
No less commendable are the top-notch performances. 24-year-old Anya Taylor slips into Harmon’s character effortlessly. From a clumsily dressed socially awkward teenager to a sure-footed fashionista out to conquer the world, she nails every bit of it. Her adoptive mother, male opponents and boyfriends and orphanage friend Jolene are an absolute delight to watch too.
But what’s most impressive is the representation of the chess game itself. Deft direction brings to live famous opening moves, attacks and defences in the mental game, which otherwise are hard to portray.
And nowhere is it more palpable than in the high-stake endgame in the Soviet Union (let’s not forget it was the Cold War era and an undivided Russia was the enemy turf). Up against her toughest opponents including Russian grandmaster Borgov, Harmon plays to win.
Felicitation pours in from everywhere. However, it’s the adulation of a group of elderly gentlemen on the freezing streets of a chess-obsessed Russia that touches her heart. She misses her flight back to the US, where the White House is all set to welcome her, to play a match with them out in the street.
And therein lies the biggest formula bending message of the series – politics can splinter relationships between nations, but not their people.