In the great 1993 chess movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, elementary-school-age prodigy Josh finds himself caught between two mentors: Bruce Pandolfini, an aloof master of the game who favors a slow and risk-averse approach to the board, and Vinnie, who hustles tourists in the park and is always encouraging Josh to play as swiftly and boldly as he can.
The real Bruce Pandolfini was one of the technical advisors for The Queen’s Gambit, a new miniseries about a female chess genius coming of age against the backdrop of the Cold War. (He fulfilled a similar role for the 1983 Walter Tevis novel upon which the Netflix show is based.) So it doesn’t feel entirely coincidental that this version of the story operates at a measured pace. You can practically hear Vinnie grumbling about how this TV take is playing not to lose, rather than to win.
Oh, the story seems to start off at breakneck speed, beginning with Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) in a swank Sixties Parisian hotel, popping pills to chase away a bad hangover as she rushes to appear at a press conference about her latest tournament. This, though, is a fakeout: the now-exhausted in media res opening TV writers use when they don’t have confidence that the actual beginnings of their stories are exciting enough. Quickly, we jump away from that glamorous teaser(*) to wade through a whole lot of backstory about young Beth (played at first by Isla Johnston) growing up in a Kentucky orphanage where she and the other girls are heavily medicated.
(*) Almost as frustrating as the use of the in media res device itself is that, by the time we finally return to Paris in a later episode, it’s clear this isn’t a crucial moment in Beth’s story, but simply the one best suited to engage the viewer before the show hit rewind.
Pandolfini, of course, was only hired to offer advice on the chess matches themselves for the book and the show. Complaints about the pacing are better placed at the feet of Scott Frank, who directed every episode and adapted Tevis’ book with Allan Scott, and who has become one of our preeminent champions of the idea that television should simply be constructed as “movies, but longer.”
Frank actually worked in television early in his career; one of his first credits was a Season One episode of The Wonder Years. Mostly, though, he’s been a terrific writer of genre films like Out of Sight, Minority Report, and Logan. Looking to direct more, he couldn’t get a movie studio to make Godless, his script about the rivalry between two Old West outlaws, set against the backdrop of a frontier town populated entirely by women. So, he sold it to Netflix as a seven-episode miniseries. Godless, released in 2017, has a lot to recommend it. Frank elicits magnetic performances from Jeff Daniels, Merritt Wever, and Michelle Dockery. It’s gorgeously photographed throughout, with several shots jaw-dropping in their composition and staging, and has a rousing action climax. It’s also quite palpably a feature film idea that Frank expanded because he could, and not because the story was best served at that size(*).
(*) Seven hours wound up being almost exactly the wrong length for Godless. The outlaw feud didn’t have enough material to adequately fill that many episodes, while the story of the female-run town still got short shrift. Either contracting or expanding it would have worked better.
But Godless won several Emmys (including trophies for Daniels and Wever), and inspired Frank to bring The Queen’s Gambit to Netflix after Allan Scott (who has been trying to get a movie made ever since Tevis’ book was published) approached him about directing. And the end result is similar: an aesthetically beautiful project with several superb performances, all in service to a story that starts to feel padded long before the end comes.
There’s a degree to which the orphanage scenes are designed to be slow, the better to illustrate how Beth is withering away there from the narcotics and the cool discipline of administrator Helen Deardorff (Christiane Seidel, one of several Godless alums sprinkled through cast and crew). But the point has been well and truly made long before Beth discovers that custodian Mr. Shaibel (the great character actor Bill Camp) plays chess games against himself in the orphanage’s cramped basement. You don’t need to have seen any other chess films — or, for that matter, any stories about precocious talents with gruff older mentors — to know how this is going to go. But Camp plays Shaibel with such gravity, and such obvious, if reserved, affection for this lonely girl, that Beth’s apprenticeship is fascinating even while the other orphanage scenes are repetitive in the extreme.
Taylor-Joy soon takes over as Beth, and while she’s not especially convincing as a 15-year-old — much less one whom the orphanage passes off as even younger to attract adoptive mother Alma Wheatley (played by A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood director Marielle Heller) — she proves a spectacular camera subject for Frank and director of photography Steven Meizler. Her face is all oblique angles jutting against a pair of saucer-sized eyes that have to tell a lot of the emotional story, since Beth isn’t much on talking. Between her physical features, the auburn hairstyle crafted by Daniel Parker, and the increasingly stylish mod fashions Gabriele Binder puts her in as Beth’s fortunes rise, Taylor-Joy pops in every scene, even before other characters watch her play and learn what Mr. Shaibel realized about her as a girl: “To tell you the truth of it, child, you’re astounding.”
The early episodes meticulously chronicle Beth learning the game and then establishing herself on the local chess scene. There’s a bit of an underdog flair to these sequences, given how male-dominated the community is, and how no one in her new personal life seems to know or care about chess. Frank and his collaborators (including editor Michelle Tesoro) find interesting ways to construct the tournament scenes — one uses the chess board itself to frame simultaneous matches, for instance — but they run out of new ideas before they get to the last big game. And Beth’s utter domination of opponents who treat her as a novelty loses its capacity to surprise well before the competition starts to take her seriously.
Still, Taylor-Joy’s sheer charisma and range go a very long way, as does the obvious fun Frank is having in blending chess drama with Cold War spy iconography. You may not love mod Sixties hotel architecture as much as Frank and production designer Uli Hanisch so obviously do, but you will likely enjoy many of the gliding shots through these joints as Beth rises from local obscurity to international celebrity, all the way to a big showdown with her Soviet rival. (The soundtrack mostly manages to avoid the era’s greatest hits, but can’t resist Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” in a later episode.)
But Frank and Scott ultimately don’t have enough to say about Beth’s struggles with addiction, mental illness, and the isolation of true genius to sustain the story across seven long episodes. Nor do they take advantage of the extended time to better fill out the world around her. Some supporting players, like Thomas Brodie-Sangster as the cocky reigning American champ Benny, make quick impressions, while other characters and relationships feel underfed. There are hints of a romance between Beth and handsome rival player Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), but then he vanishes for a long stretch before being treated as an important part of the story’s endgame. And the script never quite reckons with the contradictory nature of Beth having difficulty socializing even while her friends (particularly Moses Ingram as orphanage roommate Jolene) are unwavering in their devotion to her — as if they wanted their fictional, female version of Bobby Fischer to have a happier life than the real one, but didn’t put in all the work to show how she would get it.
Many of these problems would have been alleviated had Frank made The Queen’s Gambit as a film, or even done three or four episodes rather than seven. As with Godless, a lot of this story’s flaws and superficiality only become obvious because of how long it lingers, while the parts that are excellent (Taylor-Joy’s performance, the technical mastery) wouldn’t be diminished in a more abridged version of the tale.
As Beth teaches her adoptive mother about the game, Alma observes of the tournament audiences, “I’ve noticed the moves they applaud loudest are the ones you play rather quickly.” If only The Queen’s Gambit had kept that in mind.
Netflix releases all seven episodes of The Queen’s Gambit on October 23rd.