When you read the words “Netflix limited drama series about addiction, obsession, trauma, and chess,” the first adjective which springs to mind is probably not “thrilling.” But here we are, and “The Queen’s Gambit,” Scott Frank’s adaptation of Walter Tevis’ coming-of-age novel of the same name, absolutely demands the use of “thrilling.” Anchored by a magnetic lead performance and bolstered by world-class acting, marvelous visual language, a teleplay that’s never less than gripping, and an admirable willingness to embrace contradiction and ambiguity, it’s one of the year’s best series. While not without flaws, it is, in short, a triumph. And it is satisfying not just as a compelling period drama, a character study, and a feast for the eyes. It’s also, at its heart, a sports movie wrapped up in the vestments of a prestige TV series. As yourself this: When is the last time you fist-pumped the air over chess? Isn’t that something you deserve?
Odds are that Beth Harmon (the remarkable Anya Taylor-Joy) will earn quite a few fist-pumps as people discover Frank and co-creator Alan Scott’s excellent series. We meet Beth as an eight-year-old (Isla Johnson) when she’s left impossibly unharmed—physically, at least—by the car crash that kills her mother. Her father’s not in the picture, so Beth finds herself at a Christian school for orphans. While there, she develops three things: a friendship with Jolene (newcomer Moses Ingram, excellent), a passion for chess, and a physical and emotional dependence on the little green tranquilizers fed to the children until they’re outlawed by the state. When she finally leaves the school, she’s got those last two things packed in her suitcase alongside a bunch of chess books, a sizable ego, some unexplored trauma, and no small amount of self-loathing. But it’s the game that drives her, sending her both to the heights of the competitive chess world and, increasingly, to her hoard of pills and the oblivion offered by alcohol.
In short, Beth has a lot to handle. Luckily, Anya Taylor-Joy is more than up to the task. Playing Beth from 15 onward, Taylor-Joy gives the kind of performance that only becomes more riveting the longer you sit with it. It’s a turn of both intoxicating glamour and precious little vanity, internal without ever being closed-off, heartbreakingly vulnerable and sharply funny, often at once. Much of the story hinges on when and how Beth is alone—and sometimes she’s most alone when surrounded by people—and Taylor-Joy’s performance is particularly remarkable in these moments. Scenes of Beth alone in her home, in a stranger’s apartment, on a plane, in her bed at night—they all hum with the kind of energy that only arises when one is truly unobserved. In this case, however, she’s creating that energy in a room full of cameras and crew members. That kind of honesty and release is the stuff of acting legend, like Eleanora Duse’s blush. It’s yet another high watermark in a young career already full of them, and somehow she’s never better than when Beth is sitting silently behind a chess board.
We’ll come back to those scenes, but it would be a mistake to assume that Taylor-Joy’s only great scene partner is the camera, gazing from across the 64 squares of the board. Frank and casting director Ellen Lewis assembled an ensemble of heavy-hitters, including the great Bill Camp as the isolated janitor who introduces Beth to the game, Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Harry Melling as rivals and eventual allies in the chess world, the wonderful (if underused) Ingram, and director Marielle Heller, who gives a hypnotic performance as the fragile, damaged, compassionate woman who eventually welcomes Beth into her home. There’s not a dud in the bunch; even the actors who show up for a scene or two at most give performances that feel fully inhabited. It’s a stunner of an ensemble.
And here’s a bonus: they all look incredible. “The Crown” is rightly praised for its sumptuous, detailed production design and costuming, and “The Queen’s Gambit” will likely find itself compared to its Netflix predecessor with some frequency. But for all the strengths of “The Crown,” it rarely showcases the kind of imagination on display here. Costume designer Gabriele Binder, hair and makeup head Daniel Parker, and production designer Uli Hanisch (the latter of “Cloud Atlas,” “Sense8,” and “Babylon Berlin”) do much more than capture the look and feel of the 1960s in the United States and abroad. They use that aesthetic to illuminate Beth’s mindset. When does Beth embrace the wilder aspects of ‘60s makeup? Why, when she’s balancing precariously on the edge and her thick eyeliner serves to make her look even thinner and more fragile. That’s one example of many. It’s incredibly thoughtful and stylish. Consider it isolated breakdown chic.
The aesthetic of Beth’s inner world is also explored, though to detail what that looks like and what it means is to diminish some of the pleasure (and anxiety) it engenders. Just know that it lends Beth’s struggles a visceral energy that most stories of addiction tend to either take for granted or overplay. And for the most part, that care and thoughtfulness is found in all of the tropes present in “The Queen’s Gambit” (and there are plenty of tropes—this is a sports movie in disguise, after all). That said, Frank’s largely excellent teleplays do occasionally stumble, particularly when it comes to race (Jolene deserves better) and gender. The latter is a shortcoming shared with Frank’s “Godless”—both have their hearts in the right place, but are perhaps not as thoughtful or insightful when it comes to sex, love, and the realities of a patriarchal society than they believe themselves to be.
Frankly, it’s hard to get too worked up about those shortcomings thought, especially when the chess starts. The chess! My god, the chess. Like any good sports movie, this character-driven period drama lives and dies by its editing. Editor Michelle Tesoro should go ahead and buy a bookshelf for all the hardware she’s about to pick up for “The Queen’s Gambit” right now; the chess sequences are all electric, and each in its own way. One will make you hold your breath. Two will likely bring you to tears. Some are funny. Some are infuriating. Some are, somehow, very, very sexy. Each is electric, and Tesoro and Taylor-Joy make them so through skill, talent, and precision. (Some credit here is also due to chess consultants Bruce Pandolfini and Garry Kasparov. I know very little about chess, but somehow “The Queen’s Gambit” convinced me otherwise and dazzled me all at once.)
Every truly great sports story has not one, but two beating hearts. There’s the sport itself, a game or competition in which the viewer becomes undeniably invested. And then there’s the player or players, someone whose life is much bigger than the game, yet is nevertheless somewhat consumed by it. “The Queen’s Gambit” has both those hearts, and both are racing. Frank, Taylor-Joy, and company never stop telling both those stories at once, and the result is a fascinating portrait of a young woman fighting to become the person she wants to be, battling for victory and for peace. When her journey brings her to Paris, she remembers the words of a woman who loved her and spends some time wandering museums, feeding her soul with something more than chess. Yet there’s never any doubt that somewhere, in some corner of her mind, she’s got her eyes on the board. What a privilege it is to see that corner and see the world’s beauty, all at once.
Now available on Netflix