If you’ve known me for a long time—or five minutes—you already know that the type of plot I like most in a movie or TV show is one that climaxes at a prom. Or wait—maybe it’s one that features an “impossible” heist. Uhhh, no, maybe it’s a “secret princess” plot. Yes, THAT’S my favorite: a “secret princess” plot.
One thing’s for sure, though: my favorite type of plot is almost never a sports movie. Sports movies almost always have only a couple of plot outcomes: so-and-so wins The Big Game or so-and-so loses the Big Game, so unless there’s some nutty setup like, oh, Jamaican bobsledding or, say, Ice Castles, I’m not usually particularly engaged. Until now.
Which brings me to The Queen’s Gambit, the absolutely smashing seven-episode limited series from Netflix about a chess prodigy’s rise through the ranks to the top of the chess world. I might have known there actually is a high-stakes chess world, but I wasn’t really up on the details (and there’s a plethora of them here). But it got its hooks in me quickly: somewhere in the middle of the third episode, I was hip to the lingo at least and was basically hollering things like KNIGHT’S BISHOP TO QUEEN FIVE! ROOK TO PAWN SEVEN! (or WHATEVER) while doing nothing more than moving Brussels sprouts around on my dinner plate, so you can just imagine the tension over here. Fraught, I tell you. FRAUGHT.
Look! I’m on paragraph four before I’ve mentioned that the chess prodigy in question is female. That the protagonist is a girl (and later, woman; there’s a several-years-long timespan involved) named Beth Harmon is just one of a panoply of surprises that The Queen’s Gambit offers up. Though there are a lot of common sports movie tropes on display (it’s a rags-to-riches story, it’s a childhood trauma story, it’s an addiction story, it’s an “I can do it!” story), I can’t think of another recent narrative that mixes them all up in such an unexpected way. There’s a good argument that Beth is both the hero and the villain of her own story for a good chunk of the plot, and both are recognizably human. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the onslaught of superhero stories we’ve had for a while.
The Queen’s Gambit is impeccably cast, led by Anya Taylor-Joy (she’s in almost every scene; between this and this year’s earlier macaron-ish Emma, she’s surely the only person on earth having a good 2020). But everyone in it is aces, and Marielle Heller comes perilously close to stealing the entire thing as Beth’s adoptive mother Alma. Alma is a role (and performance) tinged with both sweet and sour, and the show gives you time to taste both before revealing if Alma is friend or foe. A chessboard is black and white; the characters in The Queen’s Gambit are not.
And just when you think you’re prepared for the story to play out a certain way (like a chess match!), you get the little kid from Love, Actually (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) as a chess svengali in a leather duster and cowboy hat (with, inexplicably, a knife on his belt; it’s kind of a Chekhov’s gun that never goes off). If you can get your head around that, you’ll have no trouble with the chess parts.
The whole shebang is wrapped up in mid-century production design that makes Mad Men look like it was shot in someone’s dingy basement (there’s definitely a prize for Best Wallpaper in its future), and the music’s just out of this world. It’ll be a little while before I stop warbling Gillian Hills’s “Tut Tut Tut Tut,” It’s in French (which I do not speak), so fair warning if you’re anywhere near me in the next few days.
In the end, yes, it’s a sports movie, and yes, the entire plot heads towards “will so and so win The Big Game or will so-and-so lose the Big Game?” But how The Queen’s Gambit gets there is as zig-zaggy as the way the little horsey moves across a chessboard.