A young woman takes the chess world by storm. Yes, that’s a thing.
Beth Harmon (Anya-Taylor Joy/Annabeth Kelly/Isla Johnston) is orphaned when her mother dies in a car crash. At the orphanage, Beth stays isolated aside from her friend Jolene (Moses Ingram) until she sees the Janitor, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), playing chess by himself. He eventually agrees to teach her and, by the age of 9, she has become a prodigious player. As she gets older, she begins to demonstrate incredible skill and starts to win tournaments with her adopted mother, Mrs. Wheatley (Marielle Heller), as her manager. She eventually goes up against American champion Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Soviet champion Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorociński), and a ton of sexism.
It’s tough to make chess interesting in film, which is probably why the movies Searching for Bobby Fischer and Queen of Katwe are the only ones I can name off the top of my head. Both of those are biopics, albeit dramatized, about real young people becoming chess prodigies, whereas this series is entirely fictional. However, since apparently there’s only one chess story to tell, it is still about a young person becoming a chess prodigy.
The reason this series works is because, like the above movies, it’s more about the person than the game. Beth is a broken person and, for much of the series, it’s not even her fault. Her mother died, she was put into an orphanage, and the orphanage drugged her regularly. She’s an addict by the middle of the first episode. The rest of the series pretty much just goes naturally from there, with her spiraling from vice to vice, sometimes under the watch of her adopted mother and sometimes not. At the same time, we see that Beth is not just a chess prodigy, but a brilliant thinker in math and science as well, just not to the same level. I like the depiction of a chess player as not JUST a chess player, but a person who has considerable talents and just dedicates them to chess primarily. Not that this wasn’t true of both Josh Waitzkin and Phiona Mutesi, I’m sure, but their biopics didn’t have the time to expand on it sufficiently. Also, both of those were limited by reality: Waitzkin quit chess in his early 20s and Mutesi, while she does appear to still be active, only has a rating of 1600, whereas chess champions are all usually above 2500. As Beth is fictional, she’s allowed to actually go out and win against the best of the best.
Anya-Taylor Joy’s strength in the portrayal is her eyes. Beth is often depicted as playing games out in her head and visualizing the chessboard, and Joy conveys that perfectly. We see her moving between fierce concentration, anxious fear, and ruthless enjoyment of her victories. She’s got a mostly laconic wit, which Joy lays out well. The supporting cast are also great, although many of them move in and out of the series almost at random. The recurring character of Watts, played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster, is particularly interesting because his relationship to Beth changes so drastically during the series, going from being an idol to a rival to a friend.
Overall, great series whether you like chess or have no use for the game.
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