“The Queen’s Gambit” is quite the risky proposition in itself. The seven-part Netflix limited series features an emerging star in Anya Taylor-Joy; the breakout best known for her work in horror hits like “The Witch” and “Split” is already a favorite of critics and youths alike. And yet if her captivating performance is already a given, the surrounding story’s allure is anything but. Scott Frank’s adaptation of Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel focuses on a subject typically deployed in film and television as a metaphor, usually by mature writers and aimed at a similarly senior audience. Chess, after all, is rarely described as a young person’s game.
Nor is it particularly compelling to watch. Small wooden pieces being slowly slid around a tabletop doesn’t easily lend itself to absorbing cinema, especially given the challenging nature of the game itself. “Pawn Sacrifice,” “Computer Chess,” and even the Pixar short “Geri’s Game” earned praise for their depictions, but none set the world on fire.
“The Queen’s Gambit” may be the exception. It deserves to be, and Frank’s last limited series certainly was, when he took another out-of-fashion genre — the western — and turned “Godless” into a sizable hit (considering its cultural impact). That same delicate attention to character, sterling production design (via “Babylon Berlin’s” Uli Hanisch), and excellent performances from a well-chosen cast turn his second Netflix limited series about chess into an absorbing coming-of-age story with more on its mind than what’s on the board.
Take, for instance, its opening tease. Employing the tried-and-true flashback structure, Frank’s story starts in 1967 Paris, as a young woman (Taylor-Joy) wakes up and drags herself out of the bathtub, scrambles to put herself together in her trashed hotel suite, and knocks back a few pills with an airplane bottle of vodka before racing downstairs for her chess match. When she sits down across from her opponent, memories race through her head, and the story starts over 10 years earlier, where Beth Harmon (played by Isla Johnston as a 9-year-old) is orphaned by a car crash and sent to live at the Methuen Home for Girls.
In and of itself, this preview of what’s to come doubles as an assurance of what kind of story you’re watching. You know Beth will become a chess star. You know she’ll do so while struggling with addiction. Very soon after the time jump, you even know how her mother died and what happened to her father. “The Queen’s Gambit” isn’t a mystery, nor is it framed like a traditional sports story; you know she’s going to win — if not all, then most of the matches she plays — so the suspense isn’t derived from the games themselves. It comes from how she wins and why.
An intimate character portrait (though not at all a true story), “The Queen’s Gambit” embraces its main players so warmly it seems like any one of them could’ve carried their own series. Bill Camp plays Mr. Shaibel, the orphanage custodian who teaches Beth how to play chess via secret basement training sessions. Camp, one of our finest character actors, is arguably the third most prominent figure in the limited series, even though he maybe gets in a few dozen words. Mr. Shaibel is reserved and private; it’s only through Beth’s stubborn curiosity that he even relents to teaching her the rules, and their time transcends instructional commands on just a few well-placed instances. Yet Frank’s script and Camp’s fine-tuning make him easily relatable, understood, and deeply felt; Camp’s muted reaction to taking a picture with his prized pupil substantiates a telling moment that could’ve otherwise been forgotten.
Yet just as your attachment to Mr. Shaibel peaks, Beth is whisked away to her adopted family, and Marielle Heller, as Beth’s new mom, becomes a more-than-fitting replacement
parent, er, presence. Heller, who’s better known of late for her directorial feats in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” “Can’t You Ever Forgive Me?” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” turns in a performance that should make her as sought-after for acting roles as directing gigs. As Alma Wheatley, Heller plays a housewife made to be complacent by her flighty and demeaning husband. Mr. Wheatley (Patrick Kennedy) is always on the road and appears to have only adopted Beth in order to provide his wife with another in-house project to keep her busy.
Again, Frank’s script and the performance of it come together to finely examine the type of person Alma has become without restricting who she really is to those stereotypes. Plenty of ’50s housewives suffered the way Alma does, yet her individuality blossoms as she and Beth embark on adventures — touring the country to compete in chess tournaments, each daring to dream beyond the four walls or tiny house provided them by society.
Seeing this relationship develop is blissful entertainment on its own, but “The Queen’s Gambit” remains Beth’s story as well as Taylor-Joy’s showcase. Light on the kind of big, showy Acting scenes that draw attention to themselves (and awards voters), Taylor-Joy trusts the character, the context, and her own command to keep viewers enamored, and it works beautifully. Being so focused on the here and now helps keep audiences there with her, as many unspoken moments — especially during chess matches — only connect because of her richly detailed process. Taylor-Joy understands that people are watching her in order to grasp what’s happening in her competitions, and Frank trusts her to handle silent exposition via a quick glance or slight curl of her typically straight face. Moreover, as Beth gets older, wiser, and more confidant, Taylor-Joy subtly transforms the way she walks, the way she reacts to the world, and the way she absorbs new information. It’s so natural it’s easy to overlook, but growing up onscreen is hard, precise work, and this young talent makes it look easy.
“The Queen’s Gambit” still suffers from structural issues and a few minor pacing problems. With this many chess scenes, it’s unsurprising redundancies appear, though it’s typically not the matches that feel repetitive. A loose middle section seems like it’s been cut into episodes based on time limits rather than definitive arcs (like Frank wrote a long movie instead of a short TV show), and there’s a cleanliness to the series’ resolution that feels a bit at odds with its messy central figure. That being said, the ending is a rousing success. Frank manages to tie many of his once-disparate pieces together for a climax that’s too satisfying to tarnish with plausibility problems; how badly you want to see these moments play out should transcend any complaints about all-too-fitting writerly bookends.
Frank’s second limited series is another risk and another unexpected charmer. To say the actors’ steal the show is both true and a tad flippant toward the measured work from every department that makes these seven episodes sing. Time will tell if viewers young and old will appreciate “The Queen’s Gambit,” but they absolutely should.
“The Queen’s Gambit” is streaming now on Netflix.