Whether it’s the palpable tension blistering over a chessboard, the crisp and charming catalog of 1960s fashion or the elusive glint in Anya Taylor-Joy’s eye, “The Queen’s Gambit” is a feast for the eyes and a spell for the mind. The Netflix limited series adapts Walter Tevis’ 1983 fictional novel of the same name, which orbits around a chess prodigy named Beth Harmon.
After losing her mother in a strange car accident, 9-year-old Beth arrives at an eerie, mossed orphanage called the Methuen Home for Girls. The camera captures Methuen in muted emeralds and immaculate set design, conveying the cold and inhospitable environment housing uniformed children. Beth and the other orphans are given daily doses of vitamins, one of which is a mysterious white and green pill — the girls call it a “tranquilizer.” In the first episode, Isla Johnston portrays young Beth as awkward and guarded yet exuding captivating mystique; her performance sets a strong foundation for Taylor-Joy to carry the role after Beth turns 15 in the second episode.
At Methuen, Beth observes the custodian, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), playing chess. When he begrudgingly teaches her how to play, Beth boasts a natural gift at chess and strategy. She develops an obsession with the game and an addiction to these “tranquilizers.” When Beth is adopted, she must leave her treasured mentor Mr. Shaibel and her close friend Jolene, played by a cheeky, memorable Moses Ingram. Guarded and gifted, Beth uses her new life to pursue the heights of competitive chess, yet she continues to languish in the lows of her drug addiction.
“The Queen’s Gambit” marks a spectacular victory for director Scott Frank. Other stories, such as “Whiplash,” explore the relationship between innate gifts and inner demons often approximate the main character’s talent, delivering swift montages that cross a threshold of believability so viewers can invest in the story behind the skill. “The Queen’s Gambit,” however, eviscerates this narrative paradigm and presents chess — a game of little action and no dialogue where players roost in one position for hours — as the compelling centerpiece for the story.
The chessboard becomes a battleground, charged with undeniable suspense. Even viewers who have never played chess in their lives will sweat bullets when Beth moves her bishop to k4. The palpable tension pulsing in these scenes is never lost in translation since Frank furnishes the exhibitions of expertise with masterful editing, a rousing score and stellar performances.
Taylor-Joy brilliantly balances wit, guard and just the right amount of ego to make her dark, complex heroine riveting and impervious to dislike. Taylor-Joy is no stranger to period pieces and often plays characters in extremis: the creepy, possibly possessed farmer’s daughter from 1630s England in “The Witch” and the haughty British matchmaker of Regency-era England in the newest adaptation of “Emma.” In “The Queen’s Gambit,” the actress charges even the most delicate movements with meaning, riding the star vehicle for all it’s worth. Her performance radiates style and sharpness, and the camera seems as bewitched by Taylor-Joy as her character is by chess.
Part of the series’ excellence lies in the way it constructs its protagonist. “The Queen’s Gambit” sets its story during the Cold War, but the script portrays its American heroine as a human being before she fits any other label. She competes against Soviet chess masters, but her story doesn’t allegorize the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. While acknowledging the international climate, the series never depicts Beth as a cipher for indulgent patriotism. In fact, she detests and is unwelcomed by the popular, “All-American” students at her high school.
The series isn’t about an American trying to be the best chess player in the world; it’s about Beth Harmon trying to be the best chess player in the world. Her realized, vivid humanity makes the series compelling and refreshing.
“The Queen’s Gambit” plays all the right moves to achieve dramatic success. Sadly, the series only bears seven episodes, which puts viewers between a rook and a hard place as they debate whether to binge the short series or spread out the episodes and savor every immaculate moment.