Every now and then along comes an unheralded mini-series on Netflix that turns out to be magnificent. The type of series that doesn’t have a major movie star in a lead role or have eye-popping visual pyrotechnics. Such was the case with Godless in 2017, an unsettling but profoundly poignant, tragic western tale.
Created by Scott Frank, Godless arrived as a dreamlike western. It had familiar elements: gunfights in saloons and desperadoes robbing trains. But it evolved slowly into a questioning look at the western myth – the role of hard-rock Christianity in excusing terrible violence was touched upon and strong female figures were its soul. Gorgeously made, with vistas of beauty and defilement, it accumulated 12 Emmy nominations and won three.
The Queen’s Gambit, which arrived last week on Netflix, is also the work of Frank (adapting Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel of the same name) and boy does it soar. The seven-episode series follows young orphan Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) as she grows up, acquires an addiction and becomes one of the best chess players in the world. It has the heft and depth of a great novel, going deeper and deeper into the main character and probing her soul with an outsider’s keen, curious eyes.
Do we ever really know this coolly introverted prodigy named Beth? No, to be honest. But her story is here to extrapolate from.
In the 1950s, Beth (played with heartbreaking dolefulness as a child by Isla Johnston) is dispatched to an orphanage and there is introduced to chess in the basement by caretaker Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), who eventually realizes he is unleashing a chess genius into the world. Adopted by a local couple who fail to provide the warmth she actually needs, Beth begins a startling chess career after the shifty husband abandons his alcoholic and pill-addicted wife, Alma (Marielle Heller, who is wonderful). Beth and Alma form an awkward, fraught bond, with Beth’s success, money and travel giving Alma what her life lacked. Meanwhile, Beth’s success (you don’t need to know anything about chess to grasp what’s happening) leads inexorably toward a showdown with a great Russian master of the game.
There are several elements that make it a little masterpiece. The main actors are superb. Parts of it were made in Cambridge, Ont., and several fine Canadian actors turn up in supporting roles, and the sense of place and time is stunningly evoked, visually. And it always remains a puzzle that draws you in.
You feel this must be a true story, with the shape of a true-to-life sports epic about skill and perseverance overcoming personal setbacks and societal prejudice, to end with climactic triumph. But it’s fiction, fashioned to provoke rather than soothe. It’s wry (Beth meets very little sexism even as she dominates a game played mainly by men), wise about loneliness and addiction, but the plot shifts and the interiority are never calibrated to function as a reflection of real life. It’s a strong work of imagination, about a sensibility, not authentic life as most of us live it. At the same time, you cannot take your eyes off Beth.
It interests me that on my social-media feeds, several actors and actor/directors are discussing The Queen’s Gambit with both passion and puzzlement. Many react to it with consternation. They love the look, the feel and the direction, but the plausibility of Beth as “beautiful/skinny/doe-eyed” is questioned and the relationship with her adoptive mother is queried. (It’s more roommate relationship than conventional mother/daughter.) They want the story to be underpinned by a clear connection to addiction. This kind of attention to it bespeaks its unique, unsettling quality and its power. Expect it to accumulate a bunch of Emmy nominations when the time comes.
Now to me, I think The Queen’s Gambit is linked to an early Tevis novel that is also about a prodigy or genius at a game. That’s The Hustler, made into a classic film by Robert Rossen and starring Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson, the sublimely gifted pool player.
In that story, the point is watching Eddie evolve from slick, cocky winner to someone who must transcend his ruthlessness to understand how to be a winner in life, not just a game. It’s about the barely knowable core of a gifted winner and his search for peace and true self-esteem. That’s Beth Harmon’s story, too, in this fabulous jewel of a mini-series.
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