Netflix miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit,” released Oct. 23, stars Anya Taylor-Joy as orphan Beth Harmon on her quest to become the world’s greatest chess player. Based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name, the captivating young prodigy battles trauma and addiction as she fights toward triumph — one move at a time.
This explosive, seven-episode drama aptly begins with a car crash, orphaning young Elizabeth Harmon (Isla Johnston) and sending her life on a new trajectory. Miraculously unscathed, at least physically, Harmon is admitted to Methuen House, an orphanage where she’s quickly introduced to her two greatest passions: drugs and chess.
The children of Methuen are fed tranquilizer pills labeled as “vitamins.” Harmon is quickly hooked, learning to numb her trauma from an early age. Evading an overbearing headmistress (Christiane Seidel) she meets Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), a gruff but ultimately tender janitor who introduces her to chess. Finding himself quickly thwarted by his protege’s exponential talent, Shaibel brandishes a coin as he prophesies to a cocky, young Harmon: “You’ve got your gift, and you’ve got what it costs.”
Finding an ally in her newly adopted mother, Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller), growing Beth (Taylor-Joy) quickly excels in nearby tournaments, toppling kings and forging new connections with her fiery and impulsive playing style. Working her way up the chess circuit, tensions rise as she’s forced to defend her genius, her womanhood and her passion.
Taylor-Joy’s performance is mesmerizing, grasping the viewer like a still pawn and masterfully guiding them through the narrative. This drama in addition to her similarly shrewd portrayal of the lead in Autumn de Wilde’s “Emma” showcase Taylor-Joy in the role of a lively sophisticate: a pairing so fitting it’s damn near typecasting.
Harmon can be unbearably headstrong, but she can also be impossibly enchanting, loving to win as much as she hates to lose. Forced to interrogate her vanity, Harmon questions what compels her — a love for chess or a love of winning?
Suspended in contemplative strings (courtesy of Carlos Rafael Rivera), the chess sequences are electrifying, the pieces wooden synapses. Some games are infuriating, others tear-jerking, a few even sexy.
Harmon is helped along the way most notably by fellow orphan Jolene (Moses Ingram) and U.S. champion Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster). The capable cast provides heartwarming intimacy, humanizing an at-times possessed Harmon and skillfully appeasing Frank’s sometimes clunky or cornball dialogue (“We weren’t orphans, not as long as we had each other”).
Ambitious subplots can remain uncollected or underdeveloped in comparison to the central journey, with chess mentors and love interests (Harry Melling, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) crossing paths with Harmon on her mission. Offering zest and wit, this ensemble is engaging throughout. However, chess is ultimately more important.
Running at 45-70 min. an episode, “The Queen’s Gambit” also has a glaring diversity problem, with the only prominent Black — or non-white for that matter — character being relegated to the best friend role of Jolene. With regrettably little screen time, she shines when featured, offering a sobering presence and voice of experience and reason.
This lack of diversity may be attributed to the time period of the 1950s-1960s in which this drama is convincingly placed (with gorgeous costume design by Gabriele Binder). However, in a miraculous rags-to-riches story that squashes addiction and trauma, there should be a more collected effort to diversify.
Even with its intense focus on the game at hand, “The Queen’s Gambit,” a celebration of passion, obsession and love, succeeds in communicating that life is bigger than chess. Pacing toward the viewer with a measured gaze, it moves its pieces with precision, never sacrificing its queen.
“The Queen’s Gambit,” rated TV-MA, is available for streaming on Netflix.