by Celina Bebenek
During the quarantine, one might complain about the lack of great movies and the significant reduction of cultural life. Most of the promising movies were either tragically postponed, such as Dune and Batman, or were rather disappointing, such as Rebecca, which has been brilliantly reviewed by Dai-Ya Wang for The Voice. It feels like cultural life has been put on hold, and we are waiting for better times to come. Hence it was a genuine surprise to encounter a show that is so beautifully prepared and possesses a profound cinematic value at the same time. By this, I mean the new, brilliant show by Netflix called The Queen’s Gambit. This beautiful adaptation about a red-headed chess prodigy is what we have been waiting on for so long. The story is both escapist and realistic, meticulous and effortless at the same time. It is also a story about solitude and passion, and how these two intertwine in human life.
The show features the brilliant Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), a chess prodigy from her childhood in an orphanage to her early adulthood. She is genuinely talented, but her life is marked by loss and deepening addictions. She loses her mother, a woman clearly tormented by her own demons, and is sent to the orphanage where she is introduced to the ‘green pills’, a tranquilizer that becomes the second great love of her life. At the orphanage, she discovers her genuine passion for playing chess. We follow her endeavours as she climbs the ladders of the chess world. At the same time, we observe her growing addiction, her development as a person and her relationships with others.
What distinguishes Beth from other characters, and also from most fictitious female characters in mainstream media, is her absolute devotion to the passion that saves her from loneliness and allows her to find a sense of meaning in her life.
At one point Beth admits that, if she had not discovered chess, her life would have only consisted of drinking and pills. Chess never ceases to be important both for our heroine and for the show itself. Beth's inner transformation is always accompanied by her transformation as a chess player. She dreams about it, sees how it is played in her narcotic visions, reads about technical aspects of the game in books, and it is a subject of her talks with friends. She learns Russian for the purpose of competing in the prestigious Moscow Invitational. The showrunners seem to share her passion for the game. Each play portrayed in the show is different and reflects the unique atmosphere of the game. There are games with tangible tension between the players, some others that are gentle and friendly, and yet others that are quick and brutal. It is worth noting that there is a huge merit in the editing of the movie, in such a way that we get a glimpse into the inner world of the characters. The story of Beth seems to follow the plan of the greater competitions, which end in the visually stunning sequence in Russia with her nemesis Vasily Borgov (played by Polish actor Marcin Dorocinski).
It could appear that a character who is so profoundly absorbed in her passion often finds herself as being “an outsider in society”. Indeed, Anya Taylor-Joy describes Beth as an ‘ultimately lonely creature’. The main character seems to be a stranger to the world at the very beginning because of her tragic background and her inborn qualities. However, the plot does not follow the simplistic storyline of a tormented and reclusive genius, such as what we see in the cases of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind or Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.Beth might come across as being withdrawn especially when she is deeply absorbed in her work. ‘You are different. You have a talent,’ says her friend Cleo to her. However, as the story progresses, it becomes evident that she is in fact not at all happy to be left alone. On the contrary, she seems to be delighted when there are people around her. The show has its merit in offering vivid mosaics of the nuanced characters whom she encounters during her endeavours: Benny (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), the only player who could challenge her; Mrs. Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller), her adoptive mother; Jolene (Moses Ingram), her best friend; the custodian Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), who first introduces her to the game. Each of them has time to tell his or her story and to enrich the portrayal of the main character. She relies heavily on their support, let it be advice, love or friendship.
Ultimately, besides pursuing her passion, the shared experience with other people in her life is something that she desires and yearns for.
The movie is rich in beauty, with engaging storylines and vivid characters. The plot is profoundly convincing. It captivates its viewers by its beautiful and fascinating story about loneliness and passion. While being obviously escapist thanks to its highly stunning aesthetics, it is grounded in reality at the same time. I highly recommend
The Queen’s Gambit
as a contemplation on loneliness while enjoying the beautiful plot.
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