Beth Harmon stares over the chessboard at the man opposite her, fingers laced beneath her chin. They play in silence. Her big, mesmerising eyes display every glimmer of emotion, no words necessary.
The Queen’s Gambit — the most popular Netflix miniseries to date — is about a young orphaned girl and her journey to becoming a professional chess player in the 1960s. Anya Taylor-Joy’s powerful performance anchors the well-constructed plot and stunning visuals, features that have caused some to praise it as a Netflix series that doesn’t seem like one. Netflix has produced some of the best television and films of recent years, but also some of the worst (see: The Kissing Booth). But even acknowledging critically acclaimed series like Stranger Things or The Crown, The Queen’s Gambit is an outlier; dark, elegant and understated.
Chess is not particularly cinematic. The matches are complicated, even incomprehensible to a viewer with limited knowledge of the game, and many of the chess scenes are made up of little to no dialogue. Yet, somehow, these scenes are not boring. The subtle changes in camera angles display the power dynamics of the game, while the close-ups on Beth’s face convey her emotional state, both of which are constantly shifting and make for a fascinating viewing experience. You don’t need to understand the intricacies of chess strategy to feel Beth’s nervousness, anger or cool confidence, shown via the flicker of an eyebrow, or her palms pressed against the back of her neck.
The costumes aid the visual storytelling. Beth often wears a check pattern mirroring the chess board itself and in one instance dresses in the same green hues of the pills she takes, emphasising her addiction and their dominating presence in her life. While these costume choices can be subtle and brilliant, Beth’s mental illness and addiction are sometimes shown with a problematic priority on aesthetics. When Beth hits rock bottom, she dances around her living room in a skimpy outfit, drinking wine from the bottle and experimenting with eyeliner. She crashes onto her sofa in a haze of smoke, shot artistically from above. While scenes like this could appear to glamourise mental illness, turning her drug and alcohol dependency into a cliched display of excess and fun, these issues are tackled much more tastefully throughout the rest of the series.
Rather than the vulnerable heroine, sexualised by the lens, Beth takes control of her desires and explores them without judgement. In a post-sex scene, she rolls away from her lover to the bedside table, lighting a cigarette and picking up a book while he watches her with a nervous awe. This reversal of traditional 60s gender roles continues as Beth dominates both at chess and in her personal life — she calls the shots, navigating through scenes with a quiet resilience.
Beth Harmon is one of the best female characters I have seen on television in recent years. She is hopelessly flawed yet the viewer cannot help but root for her with all her complexities and quirks. Anya Taylor-Joy brings an ethereal quality to the screen along with the character’s strength. Unabashedly feminine and entirely herself, Beth doesn’t win at chess because she’s an honorary man in a man’s world, but because she’s an intelligent, capable woman with no choice but to move forward.
– Daniella Clarke
Featured Image Source: Still via Netflix // YouTube