For all the chess enthusiasts - no, the nerdy chess enthusiasts, this limited series from Netflix is a boon. It was one to me too. Not because I am a nerd or a chess enthusiast. I play chess, but that's about it. It was a boon to me because this was a welcome and a much-needed change in the kind of stories that were being told on Netflix. Most of them were dark. Moreover, I was still reeling from the aftermath of watching Paava Kadhaigal (read its review here) Therefore, watching a rags-to-riches story was indeed refreshing.
The Queen's Gambit follows the life of Elizabeth (Beth) Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy). After losing her mother at an early age she is admitted to an orphanage where she discovers (much to the chagrin of her custodian) her uncanny talent and interest in the game of chess. What follows is a very familiar graph of a story. It is interesting to see the creators (Scott Frank and Allan Scott) push the envelope while narrating this kind of a story. I say this because, to begin with, this is an adaptation of a novel by the same name (written by Walter Trevis) which by itself would restrict the creators' creativity. Secondly, the rags-to-riches or underdog-to-an-achiever theme in itself offers very little scope to toy with the story. But despite these restrictions, this limited series is a very satisfying watch.
The series starts in a way that is not very unfamiliar. In fact, the beginning of the series is a very commonly used one. It starts with a point in the life of Harmon waking up dazed and after a few episodes circles back to it. But what is more interesting is the way the whole series chronicles the life of the prodigy. It is quite natural if you get reminded of Shakuntala Devi. In my opinion, all the directors of biopics could use a few tips on chronicling a life story from the makers of The Queen's Gambit. That's how much finesse this piece of art throws at you.
Each artist plays their part to perfection. My favourites are the stepmother of Harmon - Alma Wheatley (played by Marielle Heller), Mr Shaibel (Bill Camp) and Jolene (Moses Ingram). The other characters that come as rivals of the young (who is never more than young in the whole series) Beth Harmon are all impactful and leave a lasting impression. Look for the scene where Harmon and Beltik have a match and she thrashes him. This brings me to the next important aspect of the film-making - the exploration of the mind of the prodigy.
To me, the mind of a prodigy has always been of immense interest. How would a prodigy behave with his/her wife/husband, with the children, etc? How did they interact with their friends? Do prodigies have friends? These are some of the questions that have always intrigued me. This series had very interesting answers to some of these questions. In one of the scenes, the young Beth menstruates for the first time. One of her opponents helps her with a tampon. There is another scene where an upcoming prodigy and a wasted talent meet each other. That's when Harmon actually understands that she is a rarity. None of these scenes is force-fitted to show Beth as larger than life. Every interaction of Harmon with the other characters in the story is very organic and the reactions are as human as they can get. Which brings me to the writing and other technical aspects of the series.
The writing is so taut and yet very detailed. It is a possible trap to show too many things that may sidetrack the main idea behind the story. The writers haven't fallen into the trap. Yet, the questions I mentioned earlier are also beautifully explored in this series. Take, for instance, the scene where Beth says, "I'm scared of the Russian". That dialogue and the latter spiral she has with the alcohol and drugs after a loss is a beautiful example of how much writing can push the performance of an actor and enhance the whole cinematic experience of the film.
The addiction to tranquillizers and later on to alcohol, are some of the most interesting moments that show how much intelligent cinematography can add to the depth of the film (or series in this case), to the depth of a character and enhance the watching experience for the audience. Look out for the scenes where Harmon starts to see the games on the terrace and later on, solve them. The ultimate redemption from drugs and alcohol comes at the last episode where she still "sees" the match on the roof without any influence from alcohol or tranquillizer.
As said earlier, to attempt the biopic kind of a style, that too an adaptation of a novel has a lion's share of restrictions in filmmaking. But the uniqueness in this series is the way the drama in it so engaging and very believable. The performances are rooted in believability and therefore, no part of the performances (of all the actors) looks loud or more than necessary. Another fact that shows the brilliance of the creators of this show is the use of music. Most of the music featured in the series is orchestral and each piece is a tailor-fit to the situation. The silence in scenes is my most favourite part of the background score where the intent of the scenes is delivered most impactfully.
Don't miss this if you like drama and realism woven in a good mix.