The Queen's Gambit: Limited Series-Review
If there's a phrase that has become a cliche in this era of peak-TV, it's the insistence from writers of many of the current era of television shows that their series is actually a movie totalling the number of hours it takes to tell the story. Just think of the phrase along the lines of 'it's a six-hour movie' or thereabouts.
The makers of The Queen's Gambit might want to convince you that their Netflix series is exactly that, a six or seven-hour movie, and it does feel like it's been structured in such a manner. The biggest gripe that one has with what will most likely become known as the 'Anya Taylor-Joy chess series,' is that so much of it feels as if it's been stretched out and padded to accommodate a television format.
If The Queen's Gambit were a two hour, or even two and a half hour movie, it might have bordered on masterpiece territory. As such, it has become an admittedly enjoyable, even brilliant in parts, television series that labours on plot and scenes beyond a certain point in order to work as a multi-part series that will most likely be binged in one go as if was actually a movie. Doesn't necessarily mean it will work like a movie, though.
If this sounds like this review is getting ready to be heavily critical of Scott Frank and Allan Scott's seven-part series then it's somewhat of a relief that you're mistaken. The truth of the matter is The Queen's Gambit is brilliant, frustratingly so sometimes, but it also feels as if its near seven-hour running time needs at least two and a half hours trimmed from it in order to tighten up its pace.
The ace in the crown for Netflix's limited series is the central performance from Anya Taylor-Joy. Many of Scott Frank's teleplays and his direction help to carry it along in its more stretched-out sections, but Taylor-Joy, a revelation already in films such as Split, The Witch and Thoroughbreds, and whose lead performance in the recent Jane Austen adaptation Emma brought her even more to the attention of audiences, puts in what really should become a star-making performance.
She holds the screen throughout the running time as chess prodigy Beth Harmon, appearing in nearly every scene from episode two onwards (the first is an extensive origin tale for her character and is played by Isla Johnson). Her performance incredibly magnetic, and the many chess scenes dotted throughout made up of piercing POV shots of her competitors as those eyes of hers threaten to burrow their way into your soul.
Set predominantly in the 60s, there are inevitable comparisons to be made to Mad Men, not least in how much the series clearly enjoys the aesthetic of the decade (the costume and production design are wonderful) while also critiquing the social norms of the period. Beth might be a chess prodigy, but she is up against a patriarchal system of nearly all-male players who appear to be gleeful at the possibility of defeating her only for Beth to entertainingly turn the tables on them.
While Beth never falls into the realm of anti-heroine, the story presents a series of emotional heartache for her to combat over the stretch of the series. Ffrom the loss at a young age of her biological mother, and then later on her adoptive mother Alma (a wonderful performance from Marielle Heller who makes for a great double act with Taylor-Joy in the first half of the series), and subsequent issues with substance abuse, most of which stem from being given tranquillizers at the orphanage she was placed in as a child.
On paper, so much of the storytelling is wonderful, and writer/director Frank draws you in so irrevocably with some truly brilliant writing. The problem becomes the pacing when the series opts to focus predominantly on so many of its scenes and plots to the point where your mind might start to waver just a little because so many scenes feel like they should be ending quicker than they are.
It has the potential to destabilise any of the good work here, and yet it always manages to stay the course, not least building itself up to a wonderful final episode. If anything, the series reveals itself to be stealthily relying on the cliches that we associate with the sports movie as Beth finds herself at a low ebb, pulled out of the metaphorical gutter by one of her best childhood friends and then heads to Moscow to take on the one opponent who has defeated her throughout the series.
It's stirring stuff and while no cliche is perhaps left unturned in that regard, by the time you get to the finale, even if the journey there has been a little laboured, you realise that the writing and Taylor-Joy's performance has got its hooks into you more than you've realised.
The final hour of The Queen's Gambit makes the entire series a worthwhile journey for sure, with callbacks to the previous six episodes meaning that there was an air of poignancy hovering around proceedings the whole time you didn't realise was there. More remarkably, when you get to that final hour, you cannot help but get swept along by its trip to Moscow and one final stand of a character that we've come to care for more than you even realised.
It's a final flourish that truly makes The Queen's Gambit, flaws about its structure and running time aside, truly worth watching.