The story of Beth and her rise, fall, and rise again to greatness is a classic hero’s journey with a modern take and retro look. There is no clear antagonist in this tale, but it is nonetheless a powerful coming-of-age story about overcoming hurdles amidst dazzling set designs and killer looks.
Beth’s early life is filled with all the tragic backstory markers: unstable family life, parental death, and years spent neglected in the system. But frequent chess games with the janitor and a childhood drug addiction help Beth grow into a very unique individual. In her teens, she’s adopted as companion for Mrs. Alma Wheatley, a housewife whose own considerable talents are pushed aside to appease the ambitions of others. Recognizing Beth’s talent for chess (and its cash rewards), Alma takes the show on the road, allowing the girl to play professionally.
The Queen‘s Gambit manages to side-step all of the tropes we have come to expect from stories featuring orphans and child prodigies, the kind usually found in the pages of VC Andrews books, grammar school novels, or kiddie flicks aimed at little girls. Beth isn’t a cliche. She doesn’t use showy words to prove her worth nor does she own a dog named Sandy. She is smart enough to understand her situation and to know when to suffer in silence.
Taylor-Joy (who we last saw in the cinematic Emma reboot) is a marvel as a wide-eyed beauty who grows from gawky teen to rook-running stunner. She catches the viewer’s eye and holds it captive for hours. In addition to her own formidable talents, Taylor-Joy is supported by a hell of a cast, including Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Harry Melling, Moses Ingram, and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd. Each help Beth in their own way, through friendship, love, and support — all the tools she later needs to defeat her demons.
The Queen‘s Gambit is clearly not a cheap production. Every scene is eye-pleasing, a feast of color and pattern, fashion and scenery. There’s not a hair out of place or unpleasant plaid styling to be seen here. Every sitting room, every hotel lobby, every sad single bed in the orphanage makes for thoughtful detail, enhancing the story and the viewer’s experience, giving Netflix one of it’s most notable checkmates to date.
The tale of Beth Harmon is one of self destruction and also self-preservation, exploring how the people in our lives can sometimes hold us back, but also lead us onto paths that move us forward and keep us from driving off a bridge. While Beth is a victim of circumstance, plagued by inner turmoil and a constant flow of adults and men who don’t understand her worth, this is not a tale of woe. It’s a story of redemption, of overcoming odds, and in the end, a hero’s journey played across a chessboard.