The Queen’s Gambit ★★★★★
Screening in the current British Film Festival and opening commercially on 26 November, Misbehaviour is one of a small upsurge in films celebrating the women’s movement of the 1970s , including the Helen Reddy biography, I Am Woman, now screening on Stan.
Keira Knightley and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Misbehaviour
For my money the best of these to date was one of the earliest, 2016’s Franco-Belgian La Belle Saison (Summertime), which captured a feeling of self-discovery, the infectious sense of a rebellious caper underway, and didn’t waste time preaching to the choir.
Misbehaviour stars Keira Knightley as Sally Alexander, a real participant in a protest against the 1970 Miss World contest. Director Philippa Lowthorpe also goes for the ‘personal politics as liberating fun’ angle, at least some of the time. But while the film is energetic, often amusing and accurate about the era’s often alarming prejudices, it also gets entangled in didacticism and self-consciousness as it tries to square its vexing circle – that the contestants are also women expressing their free will and wanting to gain something out of the televised event.
Contrast this with the most potent woman’s story of the season, Netflix’s glorious seven-part series, The Queen’s Gambit. This dramatises the struggles of the fictional Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), a lone, brilliant woman in an overwhelmingly masculine milieu – competitive chess of the 1950s and ‘60s – in a way that unfolds organically. While the gender politics are inescapable, the film respects the audience too much to spell out its themes in awkward, finger-in-the-chest dialogue.
The source is a 1980s novel by Walter Tevis, whose works include The Hustler, its sequel The Colour of Money, and The Man Who Fell to Earth, all of them adapted into notable films. Heath Ledger was trying to get a film version made of Gambit at the time of his early death and the baton was ultimately passed to experienced screenwriter Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Minority Report).
Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen’s Gambit
Frank has produced and directed as well as writing the adapted screenplay and has done a magnificent job. Visually the series is as detailed, inventive and gorgeously photographed as anything we’ve seen on streaming television in the last couple of years. While it gives enough details of strategy to please enthusiasts (reportedly), it also engages chess novices by highlighting the tournaments’ emotion and heightened drama.
The key factor however is the extraordinary central performance of Taylor-Joy, who gained much attention playing the lead in the most recent film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. Isla Johnston is also well cast in scenes where the young Beth is raised in an orphanage, but Taylor-Joy is the star and she is mesmerising.
Certainly her face is a critical part of her screen presence. Her eyes are large, dark and unusually wide apart. It’s a face that draws you in, allowing Taylor-Joy to underplay. The games’ extraordinary tension owes much to the actor’s powerful blend of intensity and subtlety. Being never quite sure how she’s going to react makes us lean in closer to find out.
Yet it’s part of the series’ complex appeal that there’s something not exactly warm about Beth (something also true of the actor’s Emma). Taylor-Joy makes you fascinated by the character without being sure you exactly like her, or necessarily approve of her actions.
With very little in the way of conventional publicity, the series quickly became Netflix’s number one series in Australia when it premiered in late October, which is both cheering and surprising, given that competitive chess is hardly an obvious commercial or even easily filmable subject.
Misbehaviour screens at the British Film Festival until 29 November, and opens in cinemas on 26 November. Duration: 106 minutes
The Queen’s Gambit is screening on Netflix. Duration: seven episodes (approximately one hour each)