The Queen’s Gambit

I’m a bit late to the party on this one, by the time I finally got round to watching it Queen’s Gambit had already won a flock of awards, including the Golden Globe for best limited series. But if I’m late to the party, at least I’m showing up with enthusiasm. This is a great series, one of the best I’ve seen in a while, and one of the best crafted and presented characters I’ve seen in a very long time.

The first thing I will say, is that the series is overall a positive one and it ends well. That’s one of the key things I look for in a series at the moment, and although I guess it could be considered a spoiler, I think it’s more a part of the genre description. It’s no more a spoiler than saying something is “feel good”, or “gritty”, one gives away a happy ending, and the other means there’s going to be a lot of darkness (although something gritty can still have a positive ending, and something feel good might have darkness along the way). I wouldn’t describe Queen’s Gambit as light and fluffy, there are certainly dark moments along the way, but throughout there were more moments that had me smiling with happiness and satisfaction than there were that had me tensing for disaster.

The series tells the story of Beth Harmon – an orphan chess prodigy (or maybe a math prodigy who happens to get hooked on chess first). Give or take a couple of flash backs and flash forwards, the series tells her life story quite linearly from her arrival at the orphanage at age 9 in the mid 1950’s through the next 15 years or so. It’s not the most original or surprising of stories, but it’s well put together and well paced with ups and downs. Beth’s life is full of contrasts, she’s lucky and unlucky, smart and ignorant, aloof and needy, studious but rebellious, capable of planning ahead but also out of control. It would be easy for all that contradiction to come across as an incoherent, badly written character, but she’s in fact a brilliantly written and incredibly complex character where every seeming contradiction actually always makes complete sense.

That writing is brought to life by a completely mesmerising performance by Anya Taylor-Joy who is very deservingly picking up all the awards. She delivers so many layers in every scene that I frequently found myself rewinding just to focus on her word, or her face, or her body language and truly appreciate all the nuances. It would have been very easy for the series to get very dark and heavy under the weight of some of the stories, and even just the weight of chess, but Taylor-Joy brings the lightness to, delivering humour and vulnerability just as well as she delivers the dramatic moments, the controlled moments, and the quiet.

The only thing that slightly let down the series for me was actually the chess. I have absolutely no interest in chess (I haven’t the patience to play and watching makes no sense to me) and the series did not manage to change that. There were a couple of visual tricks to try and make it more engaging, but I was utterly unengaged for the most part in long recitations of different strategies and watching boards. The psychology elements of the game were interesting (the posturing, the confidence tricks etc) just like they are for any sport, but I’m not sure if the series could have lifted the game more, or if chess is just a completely lost cause for me.

Still, the subject of the story is just a means to an end and the character, writing, performance and story are easily enough to make this one of my favourite series of recent years.

The Queen’s Gambit is 7 roughly hour long episodes and available on Netflix.

The Mandalorian: Season 1 and 2

I held off on subscribing to Disney+ until there was a bit of a critical mass of stuff to make it worth while, and all along The Mandalorian had been the thing I was most keen to see. I powered through all of season 1 and most of season 2 in just a couple of days and then had to wait for the weekly releases for the last couple of episodes. I don’t actually think the series is helped by the weekly releases, there’s not quite enough substance in each episode by itself to make it worth the wait.

The Mandalorian is presented as a fairly classic western – the quiet but deadly bounty hunter out at the edges of civilisation, preferring to not really have much to do with anyone and yet forced to engage with a range of characters just to complete his missions… and then getting dragged into a quest. Everything from the dusty landscapes to the music and the framing of shots play to the western theme. The good news/bad news is that The Mandalorian is a good western, which is bad news because I’m not a big western fan. I find them (and this) a little too slow and needlessly melodramatic, and I struggle to keep engaged. That’s a big problem for The Mandalorian when it’s episodes are often only 1/2 hour long, and if you’re waiting a week between each of them. I’d definitely suggest box setting to maintain some semblance of momentum.

The Mandalorian just about kept my attention, because while the pace is slow, the moments of activity are carefully distributed and really good. Whether that’s the action sequences, character development or the gloriously dry sense of humour. And of course you’ve got the adorable little… whatever he is. The relationship between The Mandalorian and The Child is beautifully done considering one half is an expressionless helmet, and the other an animatronic that doesn’t talk. It is cute, but it’s also dark and a bit sarcastic – which I for one love.

There are clearly a lot of connections to the rest of the Star Wars cannon, and I’m a long way from being a big enough Star Wars geek to get all of them, but even for me there were plenty of moments that made me sit up and give a little cheer. The Star Wars universe is so huge, with so many untold stories that there’s always going to be plenty of material and it’s nice to see new series being slotted into the gaps. I wouldn’t say I was blown away by the series, but I was impressed and I certainly enjoyed it enough to justify a month of subscription to Disney+ all by itself.

The Haunting of Bly Manor

The Haunting of Hill House really hit the spot for me, it was a well put together horror series, perfect for box setting on a dreary and low enthusiasm weekend. So I was quite excited when the next entry in the anthology series popped up on Netflix.

Unfortunately alarm bells started going off as soon as the characters opened their mouths.

I can understand the allure of setting a horror series in England – the glamour of a large manor house, the stiff-upper lip and ridiculous traditions of the nobility, inherent creepiness of servants beavering away while also being invisible, and the long history that gives plenty of time for gruesome deaths to leave behind supernatural ripples. However if you’re going to do it, you need to make sure that your cast can actually deliver the accents! If you’ve constrained yourself with using the same ensemble cast for multiple settings they either need to be flexible or you need to work your stories around their capabilities. There were several truly terrible accents on offer here, and the worst offender was the narrator who interjected with an accent that drifted all over the western hemisphere in the span of every sentence. Even the American actress playing an American character seemed to have picked up the problem and was also massively distracting.

In fact almost everything in the series was distracting, making it impossible to lose yourself in the characters, stories and settings. It was often hard to tell whether characters were supposed to be unsettling, or if it was just over the top acting. I’m afraid particular examples of this were the two children, who were I’m sure doing their absolute best, but playing “are they possessed, weird, or just upper class English?” is a hard balancing act that the adult actors were struggling with, so the children really had no chance.

The nuts and bolts of the plot were fine, and the horror elements were a nice combination of creepiness, action, jump scares, tension and the sort of horror that just gets worse the more you think about how it. For all that the English setting gave problems to the actors, it was a gift to the cinematography, and the Bly Manor of the title was a characterful setting used to very good effect. If not for the ever present issue of the accents, I think it would have been almost as enjoyable as the Haunting of Hill House.