Martin Carr reviews The Queen’s Gambit…
On paper this story of a chess playing prodigy in Sixties America might not sound like the stuff of drama. A tired and oft repeated rages to riches tale which screams period piece, promises protracted stretches of ponderous cliché and will have audiences switching off after ten minutes. However if you mention that Scott Frank, writer of Logan and Minority Report is on board things change. After all this is the man who reinvented Wolverine, gifted Liam Neeson with A Walk Amongst the Tombstones and made George Clooney cool in Out Of Sight.
With The Queen’s Gambit we have a rites of passage story carried compellingly by Anya-Taylor Joy, who was recently cast as Furiosa in the Fury Road sequel. Here she plays orphan Beth Harmon who finds solace and salvation in the mathematical certainties of chess. Isla Johnson portrays Beth early on demonstrating a maturity and focus which belie her tender years. However, it is also here that she encounters her most powerful parental figure in Bill Camp’s janitor.
They bond over the chessboard and his firm but fair teachings shape Beth’s self-sufficient approach to life from then on. Through his direction Scott Frank imbues the learning process with an understated beauty. Touchstones in her adolescent life are graced with a harmonious tranquillity, as the game becomes her constant companion. Once Anya Taylor-Joy takes full control of the role, her poise and intellectual detachment makes her more than a match for anyone on screen.
Only Marielle Heller’s Alma Wheatley is able to level the playing field performance wise, first adopting then encouraging Beth, before becoming a genuine parental figure. Their dynamic and another forged with Thomas Brodie Sangster’s Benny, makes The Queen’s Gambit a pleasure to watch. Composer Carlos Rivera has succeeded in creating a compelling score individually tailored to imbue atmosphere and underpin dramatic moments.
This turns chess from a stuffy and stale game of strategy into something with broader metaphorical meanings. This gift provides Beth with perspective, control and a defence mechanism few people are ever likely to penetrate. Writers Allan Scott, Scott Frank and William Trevis address the issues of isolated gender roles, childhood addiction and alcoholism with subtlety and respect. There is a real sense of tension given off by these intellectual clashes and structurally it feels flawless.
Moments of pathos and comedy intertwine seamlessly in between these veiled gender battles which only increase in intensity. The Queen’s Gambit carefully explores how someone with extreme talent can exist in a world which operates on a different wave length. Those with exceptional gifts simply view things differently, are mocked for those differences and often intentionally isolate themselves in a world they can control.
Chess is the perfect allegory for that sense of detachment and intellectual isolationism. Scott Frank and company have created something of substance which celebrates the exceptional, yet is savvy enough to demonstrate that such talents carry burdens of their own. The Queen’s Gambit is a drama peppered with elegance both in terms of cinematography, music and performance. Clever but never conceited it possesses a reassurance borne of flawless construction, which may result in the purchase of a chess board come the conclusion.