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‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is a perfect distraction; Thursday is Give to the Max Day

ALSO: A new dance film at the Northrop; a life of John Steinbeck; and more.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in "The Queen's Gambit."
Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in "The Queen's Gambit."
Netflix

With COVID case numbers rising, democracy quaking and Thanksgiving basically canceled, why on earth are so many people talking about a Netflix limited series?

Because “The Queen’s Gambit” is a perfect distraction. It has everything we need to take our minds off the present moment: an engaging story, characters we care about, great sets, gorgeous period costumes and chess. Lots of chess. More than 300 chess games are played or glimpsed over the series’ seven hour-long episodes.

You don’t play chess? Same here. But we loved watching it being played and the many ways it was filmed: speeded up, slo-mo, from above, from the side, as a “Brady Bunch” grid of games and players. We loved watching a young girl become obsessed with the game and insist on learning it, insist on playing it, and eventually insist on being the best player in the world, despite the fact that chess has mostly been a man’s game.

“The Queen’s Gambit” slid onto Netflix on Oct. 23 with little fanfare. Suddenly it was just there, waiting to be discovered and consumed. Overnight, people started bingeing it, writing about it and heaping praise on it. The series jumped to the top of the Netflix charts and stayed. (Supposedly it’s on track to break the record set by “Tiger King.”)

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We read something about it somewhere and decided to take a look. We didn’t watch the whole series in one sitting, but it was all we watched for the next few days. As the final episode’s credits rolled, we returned to the first episode to refresh our memory on a detail, got pulled back in and seriously considered watching the whole thing again. It had been such a pleasure we didn’t want to let it go.

The star of the series is Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays Beth Harmon, a fictional chess savant. (The series is based on a novel by American writer Walter Tevis, published in 1983. Tevis also wrote “The Hustler,” “The Color of Money” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” He had a knack for writing stories that translated well to screens.) Taylor-Joy starred in the most recent version of “Emma” (2020), based on the Jane Austen novel. But she’s probably best known for her roles in “The Witch,” “Split” and “Glass,” all horror films.

Although she doesn’t play chess, her training as a dancer prepared her to handle the chess pieces with authority. She’s good at remembering steps, and she thought of the moves as choreography for her fingers.

Other familiar names in the cast are Marielle Heller (she directed “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (“Godless,” “Wolf Hall,” “Game of Thrones”) and Harry Melling (Dudley Dursley in the “Harry Potter” films).

Set in the 1950s and ’60s, “The Queen’s Gambit” could have been a dark story. We kept expecting it to go that way. When Beth’s mother dies in a car crash, Beth ends up in an orphanage. She learns to play chess from a cranky, taciturn janitor — just the two of them, alone in the basement of that big old orphanage. One day, she’s taken to the local high school to play the whole chess team, all privileged, briefcase-toting young men who view her with scorn and resentment. She’s in her mid-teens when she’s finally adopted — by an unhappy couple. When she starts playing tournaments, she’s usually the only girl competing.

But it’s not a dark story. It’s one where a gifted young woman has a group of gifted young men as friends who cheer her on and want her to succeed. Where the relationship between a girl and an older man is mutually respectful. Where an orphanage isn’t a hellhole. Where a cruelly cold adoptive parent doesn’t ruin your life but is more like an annoying bump on the road. Where you can survive terrible things — a biological father who abandons you, a mother with mental health issues — and even overcome them.

Beth has her own problems; an addiction to pills she picked up at the orphanage, an addiction to alcohol she learned from her adoptive mother, trouble forming healthy romantic relationships. She has work to do. But there’s hope for her, and she has hope for herself as she becomes the chess champion she’s meant to be.

There’s some sex, but not much, and little violence, unless you count the car crash. Nothing blows up. No one carries a gun. The most obvious use of CGI is in scenes where young Beth lies in bed at night imagining chess games on the ceiling. Shadows coalesce into squares on a chess board and chess pieces grow downward like giant stalactites. It’s strange and thrilling. Many moments in the series are so beautiful you’ll back up to see them again. You’ll be happy/sad when the series ends.

As a bonus, you’ll be watching real chess. In an article for the New York Times, chess master Dylan Loeb McClain wrote, “When it comes to how chess is portrayed onscreen, chess players are a notoriously picky and unforgiving crowd. We will pounce on any mistake. Though ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ has its flaws, in the end the series is a clear winner.”

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The picks

V is virtual, L is live and in person. Once more, Thursday rules.

A scene from “Gallim” by Andrew Miller and Helix Films based on “Boat.”
Photo by Hayim Heron, courtesy of Jacobs Pillow
A scene from “Gallim” by Andrea Miller and Helix Films based on “Boat.”
V Thursday (Nov. 19) online: Northrop: Gallim: A New Dance Film by Andrea Miller and Helix Films based on “BOAT.” Words can’t do this justice; please see the trailer. Miller has said that creating a new film during COVID “felt like a miracle and a gift.” The original plan was for Gallim, her dance company, to perform “BOAT” live at Northrop in November. When COVID nixed that, Gallim and Kristen Brogdon, Northrop’s director of programming, made “BOAT” into a film. The dance explores what it feels like and means to be searching for home; the music is by Arvo Pärt. The film was co-directed by Ben Stamper of Helix Films and features University Organist Dean Billmeyer on Northrop’s mighty pipe organ and the Twin Cities PopUp Choir on vocals. Thursday’s premiere will be followed by a conversation with the artists. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($25/10). The film will be available on demand through Sunday, Nov. 29.

William Souder
William Souder
V Thursday (Nov. 19) online: SubText Books: William Souder presents “Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck.” Minnesota author Souder has earned shining reviews for his latest biography, which follows his earlier biographies of Rachel Carson, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and John James Audubon, a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He’ll be in conversation with Milkweed Editions’ publisher and CEO, Daniel Slager. (Milkweed published Souder’s Audubon biography, “Under a Wild Sky.”) 7 p.m. Free, but registration is required.

V Tomorrow (Thursday, Nov. 19) online: Give to the Max Day. Your email box is likely flooded with Give to the Max pleas and requests. Our favorite so far is from Swandive Theatre, which suggests we give to someone else. Their board suggests Open Arms of Minnesota, which provides hundreds of thousands of nutritious meals each year for people living with illness, their caregivers, and dependents. If you’re able to give and you want some guidance, the givemn.org website can point you toward organizations that have been significantly impacted by COVID and those that are BIPOC-led and serving. Give to the Max Day launched in 2009; this may be the year when it matters most.

Antonio Duke in “Tears of Moons.”
Photo by Aaron Fenster
Antonio Duke in “Tears of Moons.”
V Thursday through Sunday (Nov. 19-22) on Zoom: Park Square Theatre: “Tears of Moons.” A poetic solo show written and performed by Antonio Duke, directed by Ellen Fenster. Winding through time on the No. 5 bus, “Tears of Moons” illustrates why racism and our racist past continue to haunt us. Structured around a Homeric narrator, it weaves in other characters, victims of racial violence, some recognizable from news headlines and others whose stories have been lost. Duke wrote the play in 2015 and has updated it in response to current events. The performance was filmed on Park Square’s Boss Stage and will be shown four times, each followed by a live post-show conversation with Duke, Fenster and a moderator. It will not be available for streaming on demand. 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. FMI and tickets ($25).