The mini-series The Queen’s Gambit was released on the Netflix streaming platform in October 2020 and became the most watched series in the history of the platform, with over sixty-two million people watching it in the first month. The Queen’s Gambit was based on the novel of the same name by American science fiction writer Walter Tevis. The series received multiple awards for the excellent performance of Anya Taylor-Joy as Bat Harmon, as well as for the quality of the production and cinematography.
The narrative center of the series is Beth Harmon, who, at the age of 8, gets into a terrible car accident due to a psychologically unhealthy mother who decided to commit suicide with her daughter. However, the girl survives, and she has to live in a Catholic orphanage, in which an atmosphere of traditionalism and constraint reigns. In addition, the girls are forced to take “vitamins” for the body and mood – strong tranquilizers that cause addiction and hallucinations. On the advice of one of the girls, Beth does not take pills during the day, but leaves them at night to see a chessboard in the shadows of the trees on the ceiling.
Young Beth cannot find a place for herself in the society of children and orphanage teachers. But one day she has to knock out a sponge in the basement, where she meets the janitor Scheibel, who was playing chess with himself. The heroine asks him to teach this game, but he agrees only after much persuasion. Both Beth and Scheibel are reserved and taciturn people, united only by their love for chess. The janitor discovers that Beth has phenomenal talent. The girl, in turn, taking pills, every night on the shelf loses various options for moves and chess combinations. As a result, the heroine beats all the chess players of the club at the local school.
Explanation of the meaning of the ending of the series The Queen’s Gambit
In the future, the girl will be adopted, and a completely new life will begin for her. But her only passion will remain chess. Having participated in his first tournament in his life, Bat beats even the champion of Kentucky, Harry Baltic. A brilliant start became the basis for the development of a further career as a chess player. Beth beats champion after champion, and, in the end, becomes the best chess player in the United States and goes to the international level.
The unattainable pinnacle of chess mastery for Elizabeth Harmon is the Russian chess player Borgov. Having met with him at the board in America and Paris, the heroine suffered two crushing defeats, which, along with alcohol and drug addiction, completely destabilized her. The last opportunity to beat the grandmaster is the tournament in Moscow.
The meaning of the ending of the series opens only when you appreciate the depth of the changes that have occurred to the main character. At the beginning of the series, she was a girl looking for herself, not used to rejection and loss. She was self-taught and individualistic, stepping over people and their feelings. So she forgot about her first teacher Scheibel, and only in the last episode she returns to the orphanage for his funeral and discovers that he collected all the newspaper clippings with Elizabeth’s successes and kept the only photo with her and her letter. This forces her to reconsider her relationships with people.
The path from individualism to cohesion goes not only Beth, but, figuratively, all of America. Unraveling the mystery of the success of Soviet chess players, Harmon’s rival for the US title Benny Watts understands that the secret is in their teamwork – in difficult situations, they discuss ways out together. In Elizabeth’s last game with Borg, all of America’s champions unite and call on the heroine to help her win. This gives Beth a second wind, and she defeats Borg with brilliance. Without taking tranquilizers, Bat still sees a chessboard on the shelf. Spatial thinking turned out to be her gift from nature, and not the effect of a tranquilizer.
The series ends with the heroine, who is predicted to have a bright future and even a game of chess with the president of America, get out of the official car to walk through the park and play with Soviet old people. This gesture was made for a reason – the heroine chooses not constraint and bureaucracy, but sincerity and freedom of choice. For the same reason, she refuses to make a statement about her religiosity or say in an interview that she is proud to belong to the American Nation.
Thus, at the end of the series, the heroine goes beyond all conventions and her own egoism, choosing sincerity and love towards others.
“The Queen’s Gambit” is an incredibly beautiful drama about growing up and a little aboutchess. A very slow and simple story, from the grace of which you simply can not tear yourself away.
Scott Frank’s mini-series The Queen’s Gambit starring Anya Taylor-Joy as a chess genius has been released on the Netflix streaming service. The project is already gathering rave reviews with might and main: at the time of writing the review on the Rotten Tomatoes aggregator site, it has 100% positive reviews from critics and 98% from viewers.
Indeed, The Queen’s Gambit is the case when everything coincided successfully: an exciting source, the right showrunner, the leading lady, and even the hours-long format.
The series is based on the book by Walter Tevis. He is better known as a science fiction writer, primarily thanks to the novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, which was made into a film with David Bowie.
But The Queen’s Gambit is a more personal work of the author. Tevis was a chess player himself (the original title of Queen’s Gambit is more logically translated as “Queen’s Gambit” – one of the popular openings in chess, but Netflix has “The Queen’s Gambit”), so in the novel he simply confessed his love for this sport.
The author himself emphasized that he did not want to correspond to historical realities in the book, so he changed the names of real grandmasters to fictitious ones. Although it is easy to see that the image of the main character is in many ways clearly based on Bobby Fischer, a brilliant American chess player who is as talented as he is arrogant.
But in the literary version, it was not only about competitions and the career of a child prodigy. Tevis also raised important topics of human addiction and feminism.
A film adaptation of the popular novel was planned almost immediately after the release of the book, but after the death of the author, rights problems arose. In the nineties, Bernardo Bertolucci and Michael Apted wanted to work on the film, but both abandoned the project. Heath Ledger came closest to the production. It was “The Queen’s Gambit” that was to be his directorial debut. Allan Scott (“Witches”) was responsible for the script, Elaine Paige marked for the main role. However, the untimely death of the actor destroyed these plans.
Allan Scott’s work was picked up by Scott Frank, expanding the story from a movie to a miniseries. It was he himself who finalized the scripts and personally directed all the episodes of the new “The Queen’s Gambit”. And this is, perhaps, the ideal author for the film adaptation.
After all, it is Frank, no matter what genre he undertakes, who knows how to talk very touchingly and vividly about simple human difficulties. He wrote the screenplay for Logan, which ended the Wolverine story. He personally created and directed Godforgotten, an emotional western about a women’s city from the times of the Wild West.
But “The Queen’s Gambit” is his main victory both as a screenwriter and as a director.
Living history without villains
The action begins in the USA in the late fifties. Young Elizabeth Harmon’s mother dies in a car accident. The girl almost does not know her father, so she ends up in a shelter where children are regularly given addictive tranquilizers.
One day, Beth meets a janitor playing chess alone. A nine-year-old girl instantly learns the rules of the game and shows incredible abilities. A few years later, Beth is taken to a foster family. And soon the heroine enters the first chess tournament.
At first, the girl is not considered a serious rival in a purely male sport. But she immediately beats all rivals and begins a meteoric rise. That’s just Beth can not overcome the addiction to pills, and gradually gets too carried away with alcohol, which is abused by her adoptive mother.
At first glance, it may seem that the series looks like the most clichéd set of topical topics: the difficult life of orphans, the condescending attitude towards women, and, in addition, the dependence of children and adolescents on drugs is a painful issue for the United States to this day.
The only thing is that Frank delivers all these ideas in strictly metered portions and without going too far with posterity (except that in the finale he begins to issue very frontal slogans). The orphanage in which Beth grows up is not your typical cinematic abode of cruelty. Yes, it does not do without the traditional scene where the new girl with a tray is looking for a place in the dining room. But there will be no mockery either from educators or from peers. Moreover, even with the topic of pills, no malicious intent is visible: the approach to medicine is changing – and they are immediately stopped issuing them.
The same will be seen in the rest of the plot of the series. Once in the “male” world, Beth will not face cruel sexism, there will only be unpleasant accents: instead of her talent, chess players in magazines prefer to discuss her appearance. But in the end, she will never be denied participation or harassed because of her gender or status.
With the competitive part in the series, in general, everything is very rosy, almost idealistic. Beth’s rivals may appear brash or, conversely, sinister machines. But all this will remain only within the framework of tournaments and confrontation on the board. No one will intrigue or pour poison on her. On the contrary, with rare exceptions (rather emotional than aggressive), everyone treats her victories with great respect.
That is, chess in the Queen’s Gambit is the ideal sport that is so lacking in reality. With rivals respecting each other, ready to recognize the opponent’s talent, sincerely admire the game and even give advice on further activities.
But with life off the board, things are worse. But, again, Scott Frank is not trying to show some kind of global evil. And perhaps the lack of specific antagonists is the most touching part of the story. Beth was not given pills out of malice, and her stepmother wanted the best, she simply could not cope with her injuries. And even the world where women are treated as a lower caste is not some kind of cruel, it just happened that way, and no one tried to change it. The physical and especially mental health of the heroine is destroyed only by a combination of these factors, and even more so by her own behavior.
In fact, she herself looks like the main villain of the story: a person who simply cannot live like everyone else and is not able to cope with her demons. In addition to her, only her stepfather commits meanness, and even then he is more pathetic than terrible. Yes, KGB agents will flash a couple of times. But they will be given very little time and no opportunity to somehow really influence events.
But there is only deep respect for Soviet chess players in the series. Even the monstrous Vasily Bargov, played by the Pole Marcin Dorosinski, is really just a closed person and a professional. Moreover, they repeatedly express the idea that the Soviet school of chess is the best in the world, and even the players there always help each other, as opposed to the individualists from the United States.
Of course, in the finals at the championship in Moscow, you can’t do without a small share of cranberries, but here you need to take into account that America of the sixties in the series is the same “toy”, it’s just that the part about the USSR will catch the eye of the Russian audience more.
Through the lips of the main character, the authors emphasize that “The Queen’s Gambit” is not about the confrontation of countries or ideologies. Only about people.
Beautiful coming of age drama
Of course, the question may arise: since there seems to be no real conflict in this story, why is it generally catchy? It’s hardly interesting to just watch a game of chess for six hours, even if Anya Taylor-Joy is sitting at the board.
But it is here that the two main advantages of Scott Frank come to the fore: the first is quite well-known, but the second is rather unexpected.
This screenwriter is excellent at revealing the changes in people and talking about the relationship of completely different characters. Suffice it to recall at least “Out of Sight”, which brought the screenwriter a nomination for “Oscar”.
The Queen’s Gambit perfectly shows the life of a talented teenager and his search for his place: from the first delight to the condescending attitude towards others, from the choice between calculation and emotions to paralyzing fear after the first failure.
And exactly the same with the communication of the heroine with people: Beth finds friends, falls in love, loses loved ones, struggles with addiction and tries to arrange her life. That is, if we exclude the chess part, The Queen’s Gambit is a typical and very successful coming-of-age drama, worthy of some Greta Gerwig.
It is not for nothing that the main character meets many old acquaintances by the end, and they all abandoned their childhood hobby, finding themselves in another field. Only a few are really obsessed with some kind of sport, science or art (and chess has all three of these components), and therefore stay with it forever.
So do not expect an unpredictable plot: this story is not about sudden twists of fate, but simply about growing up. It is not difficult to guess not only how the series will end, but also what kind of technique will help Beth.
For the same reason, too direct statements still appear towards the end: about mutual assistance, about drugs, about the freedom of women. The genre should justify itself and give some moral guidelines.
But hardly anyone will be able to seriously find fault with this. And not only because all morality is presented strictly dosed and adequately. It’s just that the incredible beauty of the visuals, complemented by an excellent soundtrack, draws all the attention. And this is the part that hardly anyone expected from Scott Frank the director.
Before that, he personally directed two low-budget films: “Deception” and “A Walk Among the Graves”, although already in the latter it was clear that Frank knew how to frame well. In Godforgotten, his talent was already revealed more fully – the scenes of taming horses alone are worth something.
But the slow “The Queen’s Gambit”, in which a lot of action takes place, if not at the board, then in the conversations of the heroes, was an all-in game: here you can’t hide behind dynamics and beautiful landscapes. And Scott Frank managed to present the story precisely visually, without leaning towards the vulgarity of off-screen text or pronunciation of emotions. Of course, compared to real chess players, the heroes have been given a little more temperament; they usually keep their faces stone-faced during games. In the series, only Bargov is like that.
But the rest of the actors also try to play with restraint, primarily with their eyes and quite a bit of facial expressions. And after all, it turns out to convey confusion through a look or a victorious smile, which they are trying to hide so much. The greatest burden, of course, fell on Anya Taylor-Joy – there are more close-ups of the actress in this series than anywhere else. And the way she casts quick glances at her opponent, immediately lowering her eyes to the board again, will surely sink into the soul of many.
But the secondary cast is also pleasing: Harry Melling, who is firmly established in Netflix releases, is very touching. I don’t even remember that he was predicted to get stuck in the image of Duddy Dursley from Harry Potter. But Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who already played with Frank in Godforgotten, does not seem to have changed his image or hat from the last series. But he really suits the image of a ostentatiously impudent, but actually lost fellow. Fortunately, appearance even at 30 allows you not to stand out from the type.
And all this is inscribed in an abundance of symmetrical shots from the cameraman Steven Meizler (he is also not the first to work with the director) with very neat and not annoying graphics.
Of course, the very theme of chess, with the positioning of the players and the black and white scale, implies a beautiful staging. But in The Queen’s Gambit, the chess pieces move straight across the ceiling, sometimes as if crushing the heroine with the weight of her own talent, and the music of the constant composer director Carlos Rafael Rivera, even without a picture, can create a mood.
And in the genre of retro series, The Queen’s Gambit will certainly take its rightful place, although there have been many of them in 2020 alone. As already mentioned, it looks a little toy, but insanely aesthetic: the creators are not shy about taking classic pop hits, turning scenes of alcoholic oblivion or home improvement into video clips – at least add bright colors and give it to Wes Anderson.
If we analyze the scenes in detail, it is clear that the director uses not the most complicated techniques: he shows the self-awareness of the hero, filming him from above when he is confused, and from below, when he gains confidence, he combines protracted shots that reflect the malleability of time (of course, under the ticking of the clock) with quick emotional inserts. Yes, and he just plays with color correction, either painting the picture in the brightest colors, or going into cold blue.
All this is done by other authors. But with Scott Frank, these are not separate beautiful scenes – absolutely the entire series consists of amazing shots. And to give the viewer about six hours of visual enjoyment is already a great merit.
Scott Frank approached the production as responsibly as possible. Remembering how experts smashed the film “Sacrificing a Pawn” for poorly staged games, he took Bruce Pandolfini and Garry Kasparov as consultants and forced all the actors to actually play chess, move the pieces correctly and even press the clock button as they do in real matches . But still, he made the series not about sports, but about life and the difficulties of growing up.
That is why the seven-episode format is ideal for the project: Frank is directing the film, which is why Anya Taylor-Joy herself almost does not appear in the first episode. But the picture for two hours, most likely, would simply turn into a banal story about a victory over a strong opponent. And for seven episodes, viewers are shown a leisurely graceful drama that touchingly reveals the lives of talented, but reserved and slightly autistic people.