What I thought about: The Queen’s Gambit

Simply beautiful. This mesmerising tale of a female chess champion, set in the 50s and 60s, is a sheer wonder of storytelling, acting, and cinematography. And I say this as someone who has never much cared for chess.

I have never looked this lovingly at a chess board

What’s it about?
Beth Harmon, mere days into her time at a Christian orphanage following the suicide of her depressed mother, is sent to the basement to clean the board erasers, having finished her Maths test before anyone else. Sitting in a corner of the room is Mr Shaibel, the custodian (janitor), quietly playing a game of chess against himself. Curious, she one day approaches him and asks to play. ‘Girls do not play chess’, he says. ‘I already know some of the rules’, she retorts, and recites them perfectly – not from a book, but from her memory, pieced together from having observed Shaibel play day after day. He offers her a seat at the table.

The Queen’s Gambit follows Beth (has there even been a strong female lead stronger than Beth Harmon?) as she climbs her way up the ranks to becoming a world chess champion, while battling with substance abuse that began with her time in the orphanage. Can she avoid the destructive tendencies of her biological mother, and manage not to succumb to the temptations of alcohol and pills? It’ll take you seven roughly hour-long episodes to find out, but it’s absolutely worth it.

What do I like about it?
Too much to fit into this review, because every area of the show deserves an honourable mention. The set design (this is the 50s and 60s, remember) was brilliant. The musical score (particularly when playing via surround sound) is perfect and genuinely added a new dimension to the show. Major props also go to whoever was responsible for changing Beth’s look as she grew from 15 (pretending to be 13, so she would be more appealing to adoptive parents) all the way to her mid-20s. They actually did the transition between child actress Isla Johnston and Anya Taylor-Joy so smoothly that I had to squint to notice the difference in Taylor-Joy’s first scene.

Perhaps what I liked most about the show was how it never resorted to cheap tricks to keep me engaged. Beth gets a little bullied at school, and she suffers a bit of a shock in Las Vegas, but all of it felt appropriate. By not distracting me with sudden disaster, I floated through the story and appreciated every single scene, all the way up to the gripping finale.

What do I not like about it?
I don’t know if I just didn’t get it, but I’m really not sure what the whole thing was with Beth’s love interest, D.L. Townes. I said earlier how the show doesn’t get in your face about what’s happening on screen, but I’d have appreciated a little more explanation here.

Worth a watch?
Yes and, if you love chess, you might just explode.

By the way…

  • Netflix made it very clear this is a one-off Limited Series and I agree – don’t make a sequel. But please make more of whatever kind of show this is.
  • Yes the kid from Love Actually is in it and no I did not appreciate the moustache.

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What I thought about: Ratched

Offering a look into the life of Mildred Ratched before she began her tyrannical reign as Head Nurse in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the excellent production values and superb acting went a long way to mask this show’s otherwise quite disappointing plot.

Who knew Mildred Ratched had some compassion in her? Well, enough to protest against boiling someone alive I suppose

What’s it about?
Have you read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Or seen the 1975 film adaptation? No, me neither. But you don’t really have to, as this is advertised as a prequel / origin story. The season starts with Ratched talking herself into a role at a Californian mental hospital, headed up by Dr. Hannover, a Filipino pioneer of mental health treatment. Ratched is up to no good, and we soon discover why.

But we also discover so much more, as the show recalls of some of the most horrific ‘treatments’ given out at mental hospitals in the late 1940s including hydrotherapy (forcibly bathing someone in scaldingly hot water and then immediately dunking them into an ice bath) and, of course, the lobotomy. We also get a look at the period’s views on homosexuality and the death penalty (oh how wild it is to see that we have advanced mental health care so much since then, and yet some states in the US are still so incredibly regressive in the use of state-sanctioned killing).

What do I like about it?
The visuals. The music. The acting. This is just such a delightful show to watch. Mildred drives a bright turquoise car in a sea of black ones. She has dark red hair and great fashion sense. Dr. Hannover is an eccentric maverick, yet underneath his often aggressive exterior lies a delicate man who genuinely wants to cure people of their mental ills. Every character is portrayed in a way that is ever so slightly over the top. Enough to create a sort of candied view of the story that somehow comforted me through what were some truly grisly scenes of murder, death, and suffering.

What do I not like about it?
Sitting back and taking it all in after the first episode, I have to agree with what many professional critics have said about the show. The plot… is not great. Characters show up out of the blue in unconvincing ways and often with a dramatic effect on the story that just isn’t believable. There are moments that are painfully slow, particularly as the show tries to provide some context to Ratched’s life – her work and family history, and her struggle with sexuality. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have seen those in the show – it is, after all, an origin story – but somehow the writing just didn’t pan out.

Worth a watch?
It’s still a yes from me. Especially if you can watch on a Dolby Vision-supported TV, because the cinematography is truly stunning. Watch the trailer first and be forewarned that the show contains some grisly scenes of violence.

By the way…

  • Netflix ordered two seasons in one go, so Ratched will be back soon.
  • A cursory glance at the plot of the book reveals many an inspiration for the events occurring in this prequel story – just different characters at different times.

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