The Queen's Gambit

The Queen's Gambit ★★★★

Fallaway. Telemark. Rond. Any of those words sound familiar to you? Probably not unless you've ever found yourself trying to learn ballroom dancing, as those are all terms for particular types of dance moves. Now is it required to know the names of all those individual gestures in order to enjoy watching the dancers as they ever-so-fluidly move to the music while out on the dance floor? Of course not! And that's a big part of why The Queen's Gambit work so well.

Enjoyably watching the rise of troubled chess prodigy Beth Harmon doesn't require any real interest or familiarity with chess from the viewer because the filmmakers approach each match like they were filming a dance. So much is communicated through body language, well-timed editing cuts, the chemistry between the opponents/actors. You don't need to know whether they're specifically using the Bishop's Opening or the Sicilian Defense in order to appreciate the observable rhythm between the players.

It certainly doesn't hurt that the larger story around the matches is interesting and well-presented. Both Isla Johnston and Anya Taylor-Joy do a great job as young and not-as-young Beth Harmon, an orphaned young lady who soon discovers with the help of a gruff old janitor (and heavy doses of psychoactive drugs) that she has a gift for the game of chess. While her story at first seems to consist largely of one-note characters and heavy/broad dramatic strokes, complications slowly start to seep in that give the characters and their stories some much-needed depth. For me, Beth Harmon didn't get really interesting until she started losing occasionally...because that's when the real growth happens.

Overall The Queen's Gambit was very entertaining and didn't really falter until the final episode, where so many plot threads and returning characters get crammed together for a relentlessly-positive ending that the whole thing really started to reek of TV stagecraft. It also just got a little too Rocky IV for me (as much as I love Rocky IV tho). But still, this is a sharp-looking high-energy 60's period tale which will probably appeal to Mad Men fans looking for an entertaining return to that era as well as people who've just been waiting for Anya Taylor-Joy to have a major breakthrough vehicle for her talents. She certainly shines here, whether she's dancing on the chessboard or off it.

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