Review: The Queen’s Gambit (2020)

The Queen's Gambit (2020) The Queen's Gambit (2020)

Entertaining and lavish – though you may have to skip through some bits to maintain engagement.

On paper, the story of an orphaned young woman’s quest through the chess world’s all-male ranks to become Grandmaster sounds like an Oscar-contending feature – particularly when its period settings are created and filmed this sumptuously. But is there enough here to sustain a seven-episode series? Perhaps not.

The opening scene of the first episode hooks us with a snappy, intriguing setup, well into the rock star lifestyle of Beth Harmon’s international tournament career. But then we’re thrown back into her Dickensian origin story, which is slowed down to an interminable pace. It takes far too long to show far too little beyond what we don’t already know is coming, thanks to that series opener, which by episode two feels like either an accident or false advertising. It isn’t until Beth ages up and Anya Taylor-Joy takes over the lead role again that the storytelling begins to pick up pace, and interest.

The performances are engaging, if occasionally hammy (although Thomas Brodie-Sangster‘s casting and performance are distractingly curious – is he supposed to look like a child with peach fuzz cosplaying Jim Morrison?).

Anya Taylor-Joy is luminous, and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd (in what criminally little we see of him) is charm central.

The production design is gorgeous and increasingly lavish as the series, and each era the story traverses, rolls on – from the period locations (how did I miss that so much of this series was shot around Berlin?) to Beth’s blossoming fashion sense and womanhood. The chess sequences are inventive, each one presented in its own style, albeit to varying effect – sometimes the game is depicted or visualised, other times we don’t even see the board, but the choice of when to do which doesn’t always seem to correspond to what we might need to see in order to grasp stakes or read nuance.

The Queen's Gambit (2020)
The Queen’s Gambit (2020)

Co-writer Scott Allan‘s direction feels uneven across the series. Beth’s mental state and substance abuse, while occasionally effectively portrayed, are perhaps another edit or two away from landing the way they should. And those painfully slow opening episodes could be trimmed down to match the pacing of the later episodes: compare how many scenes we dwell on the same beats in the orphanage but from different angles, versus the single shot in episode 6 which pays off a detail in the series’ opening scene – a bedroom reveal perhaps worthy of more, yet made all the more tantalizing because it is briskly left behind (in more ways than one).

The Queen’s Gambit is mostly entertaining, especially with a bit of skipping through scenes which feel predictable (and more are than not). Perhaps as a shorter series, or even a movie, it might have made a stronger, more affecting watch.

Further Viewing

Thomas Flight‘s Scene Breakdown, Queen’s Gambit: Creating Conflict Without Words: