Monday, 4 January 2021

Streaming on Netflix - John Baxter explores the mind of Walter Tevis and the world of chess obsessives in THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT (Scott Frank, USA, 2020)

Anya Taylor-Joy

       Walter Tevis admitted that the primary characters in his novels – the pool player of The Hustler and The Color of Money; the alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth;  the chess virtuoso ofThe Queen’s Gambit - all drew their inspiration from his need for alcohol  Whatever the stage on which the drama played out, the real subject was that incurable urge to drink.

       Such hungers are too far past reason to be shared. Sometimes, however, his obsessives are befriended by another who suffers from a lesser addiction, and can understand their plight. “Fast Eddie” Felson has his moral and professional nemesis, “Minnesota Fats”, and, in The Color of Money, a greedy protege, Vincent. Blinded Thomas Newton endures his stranding on earth by sharing the enthusiasm of his nurse Mary-Lou for gin. Hence Alma Wheatley, tippling piano-playing adoptive mother of chess prodigy Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit. 

Marielle Heller, Anya Taylor-Joy

       Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth has the limelight in this Netflix seven-parter but, as Alma, Marielle Heller’s is the greater achievement. For most of the story, her halting progress towards friendship with Beth drives the narrative. Beth’s fearsome lack of people skills keeps her at a distance until the older woman learns that chess can mean money. Her self-interest furnishes a motive Beth can understand. After that, their relationship blossoms. 

       Once they politely negotiate a division of profits, Alma fakes reasons for Beth to stay out of school and the two jet off to Las Vegas or Mexico City, where chess by day funds booze and bad behaviour at night. Sadly they attain the sense of family each desires only when both are too damaged to enjoy it. Alma dies alone and Beth is left to the cold embrace of her first love, chess.

       Director/co-writer Scott Frank (with Frank Scott, scenarist of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now) is sufficiently experienced to know certain battles can’t be won. Chess is more important to Beth than sex, so he treats perfunctorily her few sexual relationships. The torch she carries for the handsome D.L.Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) fizzles out when she discovers he’s gay (if that is indeed what she doesdiscover, since the key scene expires in a puzzling exchange of embarrassed looks.) Another lover is spurned as too adoring (“It’s because of you that I had my teeth done!”, he says desperately)  and it’s only with Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), a swaggering fellow champion, that she achieves orgasm. Rolling towards the camera afterwards, she murmurs thoughtfully “So that’s what it’s supposed to feel like” and, curiosity satisfied, falls asleep. 

Thomas Brodie Sangster, AnyaTaylor-Joy

       In 1991, Frank wrote the screenplay for Little Man Tate (1991),about the problems of raising a gifted child. He may have learned then to avoid those scenes where a parent is warned that a superior and precocious mind may drive itself into insanity. 

       Steven Zaillian tried anyway in Searching for Bobby Fischer(1993)casting Ben Kingsley as real-life authority Bruce Pandolfini precisely so that he could show Joe Mantegna what awaited his seven-year-old son should he dedicate his life to the game. The dark, shabby rooms they tour and the obsessives that prowl them may be poor advertisements for a life in chess, but such demonstrations miss the point. One might as well insist that every chess set bear a futile health warning. As the alcoholic is never cured but only “recovering,” gifted players can no more deny their gift than change the colour of their skin. (Pandolfini acted as advisor on The Queen’s Gambit but probably didn’t like it any more than he did Zaillian’s film.) 

        Queen’s Gambit was Tevis’s least successful novel. The 1983 edition was remaindered, and is a rarity these days. Tevis died the following year, aged only 56. The Netflix series has restored him, and chess, to the headlines, but while sales of paraphernalia are apparently booming, it is Anya Taylor-Joy who will emerge the winner. And she is, God knows, hypnotic, with a frowning stare that can, in a breath, go from chilling the blood to bringing sweat to the brow. Roll on her Hedda Gabler,Regina Giddens, Lady Macbeth. 

       But she is as alien to chess as is Thomas Newton to our world in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Chess will always belong in dark, curtained rooms and in public parks where hustlers at battered cement tables jeer one another and clash for cash. Television is television, however, so the series ends with Beth, clad in radiant white, receiving the adoration of her admirers in a Russian park, having become a deity, the embodiment of the Queen itself (picture below). 

"Let's play"

       It may be good television but hers is not a fate, judging from the unhappy lives of other grand masters, to which any of them aspired. Most chose anonymity and seclusion, some oblivion. The film is truest in its final shot, when Beth sits down opposite an anonymous older man and says simply “Let’s play.”

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