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Like the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg hovering over the events in The Great Gatsby, watching and judging, Anya Taylor-Joy’s gaze dominates Scott Frank’s new Netflix limited series The Queen’s Gambit. A blueprint for how you can wring thriller-like intensity from a sedentary, intellectual pursuit, the show builds one set-piece after another around Taylor-Joy simply peering at a chessboard. Even in scenes where the rest of her face can betray no emotion, her eyes alone — capable of filling half the frame — capture exhilaration and devastation, crackling wisdom and child-like confusion.
Taylor-Joy’s tour de force performance — one that deserves awards recognition over the months to come — is integral to the success of The Queen’s Gambit, but it’s far from the seven-episode saga’s only asset. Boasting a novelistic, steady momentum, The Queen’s Gambit works for many of the same reasons Netflix’s The Crown works: It’s smart, lavishly produced television for inquisitive grownups, even when it’s very much operating within a genre prone to familiar rhythms. It’s something to relish.
Air date: Oct 23, 2020
Frank wrote and directed the entirety of The Queen’s Gambit, which opens on the cusp of the 1960s with an episode that’s almost entirely Taylor-Joy-free. Isla Johnston initially plays Beth Harmon as a shell-shocked young girl placed in a Kentucky orphanage after her mother, a math genius plagued by unspecified mental illness, commits suicide. The orphanage exposes Beth to several things that will prove pivotal in her life, starting with the tranquilizer Librium and the game of chess. It’s a gruff-but-caring custodian (Bill Camp, superb in a one-episode cameo) who teaches her chess basics, but it’s the medication that helps her incorporate the game into her world view.
Cut forward a few years and Taylor-Joy takes over the lead role, as Beth is adopted by an estranged suburban couple (Marielle Heller’s Alma soon ends up doing most of the parenting) and discovers that chess may offer money and escape — but only if she can break into a world in which women are either condescended to or excluded entirely. With Alma by her side, Beth begins the process of making a name for herself in chess, at the same time starting to fight some of the addictions that doomed her mother.
Navigating a primarily male space — thematic territory Frank explored in his first Netflix drama, Godless, as well — Beth encounters a series of gentlemen who think they can beat her, mentor her or love her. Frank never lets The Queen’s Gambit stray too far from being Beth’s story, but the guys she meets moving up the ladder include Kentucky champ Harry Beltik (Harry Melling), chess rock star Benny (Thomas Brodie-Sanger) and Marcin Dorocinski as a stern Russian grandmaster.
If The Queen’s Gambit sounds a lot like an underdog sports story, complete with bitter rivalries, training montages and inner demons battled, it surely is. The series is based on the novel by Walter Tevis, he of the somewhat similar The Hustler; this is very much one of those stories in which a genius, marked by an almost intuitive excellence, has to recognize that their greatest rival lurks within. In a two-hour feature format, The Queen’s Gambit probably would have felt guided by convention, but Frank’s approach is cerebral and methodical, honoring every moment the genre demands — the competitive highs and lows and spirals in-between — while positioning Beth as a woman tracing her own liberation along the edges of the tumultuous upheaval of the ’60s.
The chess is the spine of The Queen’s Gambit and I’m not sure any director has ever had to find this many ways to generate action from two nerds staring at carved figurines on a 64-square board. Working in symphonic tandem with editor Michelle Tesoro, cinematographer Steven Meizler and composer Carlos Rafael Rivera, whose soaring work does more heavy lifting than any TV score this year, Frank approaches each match differently, sometimes holding back and simply observing; sometimes shooting with an uncomfortable intimacy that Taylor-Joy always rewards; sometimes employing elegant split-screens.
Vague knowledge of chess perhaps helps, though Frank doesn’t always want you to be able to follow in-game momentum, only to see the wheels in motion of masters at work. It’s a two-way street of confidence that the series earns by treating the audience as clever and capable of a journey with minimal spoon-feeding.
Nothing in The Queen’s Gambit feels haphazard, with Meizler filling every frame with period detail. Uli Hanisch’s production design evokes both the suburban tackiness and growing luxury of Beth’s ascension with equal ease, whether the setting is a Kentucky orphanage, a dingy New York City basement apartment or the most luxurious hotel in 1967 Moscow. Gabriele Binder’s costumes, meanwhile, are integral to charting Beth’s physical blossoming.
Taylor-Joy, preceded invaluably by Johnston, has an astonishing versatility, conveying a character in flux by rarely looking or carrying herself identically from scene to scene. She’s great with Heller, who takes a break from her acclaimed writing/directing career (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Can You Ever Forgive Me?) to give a performance that comes across as untrained yet unexpectedly effective as a woman whose dreams were thwarted by growing up a decade too early. If the men here come across as a bit goofy or self-obsessed, it’s a reflection of the extent to which they do or don’t fit into Beth’s life. Melling and especially Brodie-Sanger, eerily resembling a young David Spade with a pencil mustache, bring ample awkward charm.
I’m not without a few reservations. Certain characters, like Beth’s early orphanage mentor Jolene (Moses Ingram), practically demand more screen time, and there are definitely stretches where Beth’s mental health has to take second billing to the needs of the genre. I also can’t shake the feeling that the story of this woman, created on the page by a man and written and directed for the screen by a man, might take on added shading were it explored by somebody who was, well, not a man.
Godless was full of tremendous moments, but felt like a feature stretched thin to seven episodes. Though it tells a full and close-ended story, The Queen’s Gambit is a world I would have loved to spend more time in. I don’t need a second season, but if Frank wanted, after this exemplary adaptation, to pass the reins along to somebody like Heller or Amy Seimetz, there might be more moves left on this board.
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Marielle Heller, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Moses Ingram, Harry Melling and Bill Camp
Created By: Scott Frank and Allan Scott from the book by Walter Tevis
Written and Directed By: Scott Frank
Premieres Friday, October 23, on Netflix
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