I tried my best to binge this as a long movie, because like many limited series these days, that's absolutely how it's intended to be consumed. The Queen's Gambit
is about what it’s like to grow up scared and alone, to discover oneself through solitary and communal experiences, to go through life with immense passion and continual adjustments to pain.
Beth begins naive about addiction, retreating into herself like an addict who uses alone to escape the hardships of the outside world. The game of chess- strategizing and living in one's mind- is safe. Being good at something is a reason to get up in the morning. Right from the beginning the story is told through the subjective lens of Beth in a very novel way. Frank’s interest is on small movements and specific angles rather than big events. He details all the perceptions of a wide-eyed child sizing up her surroundings with equal parts fear and wonder. We see the teacher from the exact space where Beth sits, heads blocking our vision, firmly aligning with the restrictiveness and opportunistic framework of her position. Angles are low when she's afraid and spectacularly open up when she's inspired.
The fine line between a passion and an addiction is invisibly planted, validating the desire and flat-out need
to strive for feeling good- whether about ourselves emotionally or for ourselves physiologically - and when we can’t get that feeling from others we need to take matters into our own hands. At the same time, I appreciate how Frank refrains from stamping a reductive prognosis of the addiction component, at least for a while. It’s simply an enigmatic force, with clear risk factors gesturing at reasons for self-medication but also an entirely unknowable force too, that prompts Beth to make objectively illogical choices without a meditation on the ‘why’. It’s as humble a direction to take on the subject as any, and layers the rush of the chase toward chess to both mask and mimic that addict part under the iceberg of her psyche. As mentioned, the visualizations help contribute these coatings, where even the carpeted walls and floors of a hotel room resemble the two-shaded green pills. It's as if the entire film is a symphony of the significant elements in Beth's life morphing into one another like a waking dream, as she tries, avoids, fails, and succeeds to get a grasp on her presenting problems and overall character.
For over a decade I’ve worked with children around young-Beth's age who have been removed from their families, orphans of the state with trauma histories and mental health issues. I've found games, and specifically the game of chess, to be a dependable gateway into building rapport, and surprisingly many of the kids I work with take to it with gusto. I don’t know why they love chess- perhaps a feeling of empowerment and validation of their worth, doing for themselves what few others have given to them. The game is also a reinforcement of their often hypervigilant perceptiveness, playing to those strengths: scanning the board, problem-solving internally, besting another human being in a safe space involving clear rules- dependable constructs to protect them from the external traumatizing world. At a certain point Beth is conditioned to ‘do it alone’ too- she rejects the caring gesture from a female peer who offers a tampon in practice by tossing it, but publicly accepts the support; the distrust in others is subtly woven into the fabric of her existential comfort.
However, I also found solace in chess as a kid. I was shy, had debilitating social anxiety, undiagnosed mental health issues similar to my family members, but I grew up in a caring, supportive home without many of the glaring commonalities Beth and my clients share. But of course that internal, mystifying space matters just as much, and while the children I’ve worked with may share more of a trauma history with her, not all of them will grow up to cope in the same ways Beth and some of us have, to ease that discomfort or fill that hole or whatever it may be with a solution that bears a curiously unstoppable magnetic hold.
This is, above all else, a great character study. Despite the subjective visuals, Frank's approach occupies a space wavering in between the objective and subjective. Beth's emotions are felt, but her psychology is mostly left impenetrable, as it should be. Frank's intent is not a primarily diagnostic exercise but a humanistic one, showing a distinct person who has her set of strengths, commendable resilience, and challenges, deficits, and blind spots too. There is a great scene in the third episode where Beth flirts with a man over a chess board, her introverted source of comfort and confidence bridged out into the world of social discomfort, novelty and naivete. The chess game transforms from an aloof, concrete set of rules into a sexy vernacular of nebulous intimacy, shattering that sense of self-actualization with a reminder that there's more to learn and experience; there always is. We watch her lose, win, be willing to learn, remain stubborn in her ways, act coldly without social skills at certain times, and react warmly with compassion at others. We watch men want her and her want men, dismissing desires and giving in to them, engage in solely selfish modes of self-preservation and genuine surrenders of the self toward a state of empathy.
That is, until the last act, which ultimately ruined my impression of this film in only a brief series of scenes.
Beginning in episode 6 and transitioning into episode 7, Beth's addiction bubbles up to the surface in a contrived climax where she can’t hide from herself anymore, and three friends show up to give overstated and unfairly thin pathologies in their Lifetime-pleading interventions. It's not only a polished fabrication of the addiction component, especially that scene where her old friend basically tells her to just change (as if she's choosing, or has ever chosen, to be an addict, culminating in a consoling cry, "oh did you bite off more than you can chew?" come on) but also a violation of the strategically composed tone and respectful ethos to character the film has put forth for us.
Even following this, Beth's turn to sobriety mirrors her newfound humility, happiness, social harmony, and self-actualization, all with total ease. It's honestly ridiculous, and offensive to our journey with this developing character, to watch ingrained experiences just disappear with the wave of a magic wand; and incredibly disrespectful to mental health by supporting the notion that, with a little nudge, we can pull ourselves up by our emotional bootstraps and conquer our addictions, mental illnesses, traumas, and.. general conditioning conclusively. The way she just turns away a drink and smiles near the end makes me want to turn off the movie, but nothing can beat all the people who expressed concern being in the same room and calling her in Russia to save the day with teamwork.
However, for the bulk of the film, Beth is left as a strong character comprised of many parts. For the first five episodes, Beth is not defined as an addict. She is not defined as a chess player. She is not defined as a feminist's icon trying to be the best 'person' in a 'man's' world; wholly egocentric, or tenderhearted "deep down"- whatever that absolute idea means. Beth is all of those things and more, her identity as transparent and opaque as any of our's would be if another spent time with us for seven hours in a time capsule. Just because we are all ambiguously defined along the many spectrums of existence, doesn't mean we're not unique. The title of this film, the Queen's Gambit, is a power move that asserts one's presence out into the field of play. Beth is a walking contradiction of a person, like many of us; someone who needs to assert her dignity and worth by facing the world, and also needs to hide away from all the overwhelming stimuli. There's a saying for recovering addicts, "an egomaniac with an inferiority complex" - that may not describe Beth, but some iteration of it prods at her vast complexities, with permission for being who she is through solicitude.
Despite some poorly-engineered missteps near the end that threaten to undo the film's admirable qualities, the majority of it works exceptionally well. Unfortunately I can't judge this off of 5.5 out of 7 episodes, for if I could I'd call it one of the better films this year. As it stands, Frank tailspins and makes all the choices one must avoid if they don't want to insult their audience, not to mention the condition of addiction, in the last two eps- and even giving the film all the rope in that area, the character study deflates all energy and interest from the narrative, and then continues to double down on its eye-rolling machinations to pretty unforgivable degrees. It's a real shame.