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: Control Z

Is Mexican Netflix as good as Spanish Netflix? If this mystery drama is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Featuring an excellent lead actress and supporting cast, I devoured this show in less than 48 hours.

Look at them, phones out, ready to record today’s mishap. Over-use of mobiles is what got them into this mess…

What’s it about?
Sophia is a bit odd. She lost her father many years ago in a fire, and recently returned from a mental institution after an incident of self-harm. But she’s also a thinker, able to spot patterns in behaviour and notice the little details. When a hacker hijacks the school assembly to drop a truly explosive secret about one of her classmates, they all turn to her for help tracking the hacker down. Sophia needs to hurry up, though, as the hacker continues to either reveal more secrets or blackmail students into doing their bidding, including taunting Sophia.

The show was described by a much better writer than me as “Gossip Girl meets Mr. Robot, with just a touch of Sherlock Holmes”, and I couldn’t put it better myself.

What do I like about it?
It has a similar salacious energy that we’ve seen before in Elite. These kids have some pretty messed up secrets, and as they start coming out, there are some truly catastrophic consequences. But the show also takes the time to illustrate how the students – many of them rather stuck-up, self-absorbed, or outright bullies, are quite emotionally fragile underneath, and the incident changes them for the better. I also enjoyed seeing Sophia become more accepted by her classmates who used to whisper about her mental health issues.

What do I not like about it?
With the advent of streaming services, episodes no longer have to fit neatly into an ad-friendly running time. This show runs anywhere from 35 to 41 minutes. It’s strange, then, that it felt like some connecting scenes were missing at times, as if they had been cut. Characters would get close to boiling point in one scene, and then are completely calm in the next. I remember a scene where Raúl is looking for Sophia, literally going up to random students and asking them if they’d seen her. The very next scene shows Sophia walking together with Raúl and Javier. I suppose we are to assume he managed to track her down eventually? That these elements were missing does raise some concerns about the solidity of the show’s plot.

Worth a watch?
Yes, as long as you’re not expecting too much. I enjoyed this show and can’t wait for the confirmed second season, but I can’t give readers the same encouragement as I did for The Stranger, as it’s just not on the same level. The childishness of the school’s students and the aforementioned plot difficulties might annoy the more seasoned mystery fan.

By the way…

  • This is fifth foreign-language show I’ve seen this year, and in fact the third Spanish-language one. The beauty of Netflix’s Originals is their ability to push it out to their entire global subscriber base without international licensing woes. The consumer ultimately benefits – if you’re not watching foreign-language titles on Netflix, you’re seriously missing out.
  • NME gave it 2/5. I think that’s a bit harsh, but then again, I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy.

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