Netflix’s limited series debuts before Halloween, in a strangely captivating story of chess, abandonment and addiction. Review based upon the first four episodes, light spoilers ahead.
The new limited series based upon the fictional novel by Walter Tevis follows Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) who finds solace in the game of chess during the 1950’s as a orphan (Isla Johnston), and how after she is adopted as a teenager in the 1960’s by Mrs. Wheatley (Marielle Heller, director turned actress) and the cold distant Mr. Wheatley (Patrick Kennedy), that Beth Harmon slowly works her way into the US and world chess championships in which she will eventually face her greatest rival, the feared Russian grandmaster Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorociński).
Directed and written by Scott Frank, the co-creator creates his second Netflix series after the widely acclaimed and Emmy winning series Godless, a Western miniseries starring Michelle Dockery and Jeff Bridges. Frank’s new show The Queen’s Gambit is miles different in terms of story and setting, but no less observant in tone and power of subtlety. Profanity laden, written wonderfully in rich emotion and beautifully shot, the series is a slow-burn of small revelatory gestures and magnetic chemistry, you could almost say the characters are on a living chess board in whether they fail or succeed in pursuit of the 60’s American Dream.
Although she is no stranger to television, Anya Taylor-Joy is best known for her roles in films The Witch, Split and the seriously underrated Thoroughbreds. Here Taylor-Joy remains as promised, the firm star of the show. As Beth Harmon, the actress is delicate, determined and stoic, she is a quiet revelation and utterly commands every second on screen whether she is playing chess, succumbing to her growing addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol to soothe her inner demons, or running errands for her ailing adoptive mother. Her younger counterpart Johnston deserves her fair share of praise too, especially for the series opener “Openings” when we learn of Beth’s tragic beginnings.
Despite Taylor-Joy’s star power, the supporting performances are also splendid, such as veteran actor Bill Camp who makes the most of the short-lived and seemingly insignificant role as custodian Mr. Shaibel acting as Beth’s first mentor. Also worth noting is Thomas Brodie-Sangster as confidently enigmatic chess champion Benny Watts, later serving as a tutor and friend, and Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood director Marielle Heller is wonderfully endearing as adoptive mother (figure) Mrs. Wheatley.
Amongst the stylish sets by Uli Hanisch and fixated cinematography by Steven Meizler, the series’ substance is matched by its style. The direction of Frank and the editing by Michelle Tesoro is harmonious in the unison of the first four episodes, particularly in the chess playing scenes. A notable example of this is in the aptly named second episode Exchanges in which a game between Beth and the suave and mysterious Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) is unexpectedly alluring in the faintest of glances between each competitor.
From what The Queen’s Gambit has offered thus far, the series is hypnotic, compelling and the most sumptuous drama made about chess (assuming since ever). The smallest of details are impeccable, and Scott Frank’s take on the novel by Tevis is a fantastic observation of a woman’s journey as a orphan, to the fiercely competitive chess champion, blended with a poignant and universal tale of substance abuse and fighting addiction in the hopes of achieving personal and professional success. Drop everything and watch this series on Netflix.