Friday, October 30, 2020

Pawn to Queen Four

The Queen's Gambit takes place in the 1950s and 1960s, and if Beth Harmon is to be the world champion of chess, she must beat the Russians at their own game. There's some Cold War menace in the background, and Netflix, like most of the entertainment industry, thinks the Soviet Union's only flaw was giving up too soon on Karl Marx. The Americans therefore are shown as crass and the Russians as big-hearted, and at the close Beth finds fulfillment in a Moscow park, playing chess with sweet old men with not a hint of sexism or xenophobia. 

The critics have gone gaga over Anya Taylor-Joy, who does indeed do a great job as a chess-obsessed and Librium- and booze-addicted girl and woman who wipes the floor with almost every man and boy she plays against. For me, though, the more amazing actor is Isla Johnston, who plays Beth as a 9-year-old whose life is changed by a sad-faced janitor in the basement of her orphanage. With her terrifying calm, Ms Johnston is so good she's spooky. 

But she's replaced in episode 2 by Ms Taylor-Joy as a teenager adopted by a dysfunctional couple and placed in a standard-issue US high school. Again, chess saves Beth from the Heathers and football heroes who populate the place. Nothing can stop her now, save the occasional Russian! By episode 6, we're on to Paris, with Moscow not far behind. Altogether, and despite the occasional slowdown, this is the best piece of television I have ever seen. (And speaking of addictions, look more closely at the chessmen on that board!) Blue skies! — Daniel Ford


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