A creative adaptation of Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel directed by Scott Frank, The Queen’s Gambit, was released during the COVID-19 pandemic. A title-series that has recorded a groundbreaking number of viewers, the story presents to us a mysterious story of an orphan girl played by Anya Taylor-Joy who wishes to become a master chess player. Set against the backdrop of mid-century modern America, with its maximalist architectural style alongside the stunning cinematography and meticulous set design, the TV show has been able to capture the attention of the global audience.
Highlighting themes of addiction, trauma, chess, and obsession, the TV show revolves around the early life of an orphan girl named Beth Harmon, who with her odd nature and intelligence overcomes the limitations of the orphanage she finds herself in. Consequently, she emerges into the world of chess where she is flooded with many challenges.
Dramatic Visual Effects tell the Story
There is much more to the story than the beauty of the game of chess. Scott Frank has been able to portray the tale of a young orphan girl who rises from the dark basements of her orphanage, only to find herself in the glitz and glamor of the world of chess as a young woman. Her journey leads her to battle with her weaknesses that revolve around drug abuse which also serves as a tool for her to excel in her strategic thinking. The intense cinematography with the help of dramatic visual effects helps the audience to travel in the progressive journey of Berth Harmon as an aspiring female chess player.
The Architectural Scene
The TV show has a visual language that attracts the audience with its attention to detail. The mid-century modernist American touch to the architecture and interior being shown in The Queen’s Gambit are all set and shot in Berlin. The production designer, Uli Hanisch, was able to convert modern-day Berlin into both a glimmering Vegas center as well as bring about Communist sobriety as the movie moves into its final scene.
The aesthetic of Beth’s inner world is projected onto the physical visuals that the production designer, Hanisch, has tried to create in the show. There is a selection of scenes that speak the architectural language of the era that depicts a Brutalist-Bauhaus style which is also contrasted with the advent of the Art-Deco movement. The variation of aesthetic language that shows the time period which the tele-series tries to capture can be best observed from the following scenes:
Beth’s Cradle- The Methuen Home Orphanage
The orphanage presents itself as the center of Beth’s character foundation for the years to come. As shown in The Queen’s Gambit, the orphanage where Beth grew up had a very haunted feel to it as it was set in a Neo-Renaissance style classical tower that looked abandoned. The color palette for most of the scenes shown at the orphanage was in the sickly tones of green and petrol blue, creating an unwelcoming atmosphere. The dull and hard wooden colors that were used also show the harsh nature of the orphanage where the children had to follow strict rulings that emptied them of their individuality. Perhaps this was also intentionally shown to depict the use of tranquilizers for the orphans which was a common practice at the time.
Beths New Home with her Adoptive Parents
For many, the star of the Wheatley House is the wallpaper and the use of mismatching patterns with contrasting colors. The Queen’s Gambit depicts a rather humble and plain home for the Wheatley’s where Beth finds herself. It shows the use of pastel tones with floral and animal patterns and mid-century modern décor that all point towards the attempt of creating a façade of a happy home that was not a reality. The focal point of the living room is the pianoforte surrounded by ghastly yet modern-looking furniture that shows the satirical take on modernity. The use of interior design elements and a poorly decorated home was a direct comment on the lifestyle of Beth’s adoptive parents and their failing marriage.
In addition to this Beth’s bedroom, which is decorated in pink plaid and tassel fabric, the girliest room ever, is also seen as an opposite to her otherwise witty character. It is a conscious mismatch to Beth’s personality.
Las Vegas Hotel Lobby
The Queen’s Gambit addresses the challenge of portraying a quintessential American setup of a flashy Vegas interior. This was met by making an entire set from scratch in Berlin by the production designer. Using an existing building and molding it into a glamourous center for the US chess open where Beth finds her way up the social ladder, the golden feel of the room does not go unnoticed. The use of gem-colored deep blue and purple sofas, turquoise chairs, paired with sparkly dice as centerpieces for the lobby was a testament to the regal feel that Vegas holds.
The same flashy theme is repeated in the hotel room where Beth goes to visit a potential suitor. The hotel room is decorated with turquoise velvet pillows and the same dice being used as a design pattern in the room. The use of groovy and geometric patterns in the bedroom, as seen in The Queen’s Gambit Vegas chapter, pays homage to the more Art Deco side of the American architectural trend that was dominant during the ‘50’s. Perhaps the loud feel along with the glitz and glamor of the room is a personification of the toxicity that fame brought forth for Beth.
The Aztec Palace Hotel (Mexico City)
Considered to be one of the most captivating yet fictional locations for the teleseries, the Aztec Palace Hotel serves as the more ornamental example of set design for this show. The use of bold colors put together in contrast, along with stained glass windows enhances this theme. The use of furniture with thin silhouettes and floral and geometric prints also gives the hotel a vibrancy.
Final Chess Showdown at Moscow
As the penultimate scene of the entire series, it was only fitting the same Brutalist style that was evident at the beginning of The Queen’s Gambit, was replicated here. The setup for this scene with the final chess match that would determine Beth’s future as a chess player had to have a certain level of intimidation, gloom, and gravity. The setup for the final chess scene had to incorporate a feeling of watching a serious surgical operation take place. To enhance this feeling of the ‘unknown’, the setting included wooden bleachers, dark undertones, no bright colors, dim lighting, and multi-levels in the room so that the spectators would be almost looking down at the chess participants who were sitting at the lowest level in the room.
Each chess scene of the TV series is electric. It makes the viewer hold onto their breath. The director Scott Frank has been able to give the audience a series of nervous moments and strike them with wonder when it comes to enjoying the show like any other sports movie.
- Netflix. The Queen’s Gambit, 2020. [Photograph]
- Tofani, F. The Methuen Orphanage. 2020. [Photograph]
- Rotten Tomatoes, The Queen’s Gambit, 2020. [Photograph]
- Wallace, R. (2020). Why Is Everyone So Obsessed with The Queen’s Gambit? Architectural Digest.
- Barber, M. (2020). Inspecting 11 Rooms From The Queen’s Gambit. Curbed.