As the Covid virus recedes even from Victoria – and the South Australian scare proves less serious than it looked – one could almost be forgiven for thinking of Australia as a lucky country again, not least as the northern hemisphere heads for the darkest possible midwinter of the new wave. And one consequence for us here, is that we might enjoy a public culture again, even in Melbourne. If there were one stage show I could see right now, however, it would be Nikki Shields in that superb adaptation of Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career by the dazzlingly talented Kendall Feaver who has written a script which should test Shields’ sumptuous talents at Belvoir in Sydney.
In the meantime there is the streaming TV that has sustained us through all the period of imprisonment and dwindled expectations and I have just watched a stunning example of it, The Queen’s Gambit from Netflix.
It’s as riveting a seven hours of television as we have seen in the longest time – a brilliantly imaginative drama about an orphaned girl who becomes a great chess master. Her early childhood is in the 1950s and her nail-biting chessboard splendours and miseries are in the late 1960s but no summary of this girl’s own odyssey can do justice to its sheer captivating originality.
We get the flashbacks of her mother – her bright mathematician mother – deliberately driving her car into a truck and we get a meticulous recreation of the young recessive redhead in an orphanage where she meets an old chess player who inducts her into the mysteries and marvels of the game.
This and everything about the subsequent electric highs and lows of the chess obsession is done with a breathtaking, seemingly effortless sense of drama which will astound chess obsessives and dumbos alike. But what is at least as impressive in Scott Frank’s magnificently conceived epic is the pinpoint precision of the sense of period. He somehow (through God knows what magic) captures not just the external ‘look’ of the early 1960s but the kinds of faces people had back then.
Anya Taylor-Joy as the heroine Beth Harmon gives one of the greater performances in the history of television. She is wonderfully laconic in her evocation of a brilliant, damaged person with a massive intelligence and an emotional complexity (and an experience of heartbreak to match.) Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance is at least on par with anything we have seen in recent cinema, including the rise of great young actresses like Saorise Ronan and Florence Pugh.
This is a performance that captures the power of a personality constantly trying to preclude sympathy as she reaches the zenith of the highest and mightiest abstract game known to human intelligence.
Part of the spellbinding originality of The Queen’s Gambit which is number three on the Netflix hit list is that it captures both the sheer brilliance of a ‘genius’ and the difficulty and capacity for self-defeating folly on the part of a young woman who is nothing if not formidable, nothing if not fragile.
Taylor-Joy’s performance should command the attention and, beyond it, the awe of an audience that cares about the art of acting and the accurate depiction of human sorrow and exultation. The supporting cast is superb with Marielle Heller giving a marvellous rendition of the cut glass fragile adoptive mother who likes a tipple as well as a tumble in the hay with an old pen pal she might imagine has a heart, and who is also a fiercely loyal maternal figure and a fine piano player.
But everyone in The Queen’s Gambit is superb. The dark handsome bi guy who has his heart broken, the loyal upper middling chess mate and the American champion – behatted and hip – who works out last-minute strategies for her against the Russians. Not to mention the Russians themselves who are presented in all their passion and ancient reverence for the great game.
Watch The Queen’s Gambit even if you’ve taken a vow only to look at cinema and theatre from now on. This is an utterly realised self-contained miniseries with a vertiginously difficult subject matter which achieves, against all the odds, the status of art.
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