Anya Taylor-Joy is stunning as a self-destructive chess prodigy in Netflix's solidly entertaining miniseries.

By Darren Franich
October 21, 2020 at 02:48 PM EDT
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I like chess, I like '60s fashion, and I like Anya Taylor-Joy. So I was a cheap date for The Queen's Gambit, Netflix's new seven-part miniseries streaming Friday. Taylor-Joy plays Beth Harmon, an outcast teen chess prodigy who becomes a grown-up celebrity chess casualty. Writer-director Scott Frank tracks her from a dingy orphanage cellar to globetrotting duels against Soviet supermen. It's a stylish period piece with the rambling-years momentum of a John Irving novel. Luscious production design and a darkly fascinating lead performance duel against mawkish sentiment and a messy final act. It's always fun to watch, even when it's playing emotional checkers.

The series begins with Beth hungover and half-sunk into a bathtub. She's in a palatial Paris hotel room; the place looks trashed. She gets dressed, notices someone in her bed, pops some pills, and races downstairs. Flashbulbs pop in her face. The whole world press is there, watching her play the Russian grandmaster Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski). They make a sharp contrast. He's a stern middle-aged communist, somehow looming and invisible, followed everywhere by his KGB retinue of bodyguard-jailers. She's glamorous, undone, afire, and lonely. It's a great opening, rife with conflict: America, Russia, woman, man, youth, experience, druggy hedonism, rigid professionalism.

Alas, it is a prologue flash-forward, the hottest story idea of 2006. Queen's Gambit kind of earns its backstep. The first episode circles to a younger Beth (Isla Johnston), shellshocked after her mother dies in a maybe suicidal car crash. She arrives at a midcentury Catholic orphanage. Those three words suggest nightmare possibilities, but here the abuse is all chemical. Orderlies stuff the kids full of state-mandated tranquilizers. Beth is getting high on Orphan's Little Helper right as she discovers chess. Downstairs, somber janitor Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) plays solo matches on his ratty board. He starts teaching Beth the basics, and realizes he's found a queen.

Credit: Phil Bray/Netflix

Every episode takes another step forward in Beth's chess career, her coming of age, and her addiction spiral. It's a familiar biopic trajectory, though the source material is a novel by Walter Tevis. Taylor-Joy is at her best playing Beth as a kid with a Vulcan-ish awkward confidence. She lets you see how the chessboard is an escape for a confused young person and a kind of religion, offering "an entire world of just 64 squares" to someone whose inner life is full of murky confusion.

Beth winds up adopted by the Wheatleys, a married couple whose heavily patterned house looks like the mausoleum of '50s America. Dad Allston (Patrick Kennedy) is distantly busy. His wife, Alma (Marielle Heller), grieves a never-quite-explained loss by retreating into daylight drinking and perpetual television. When she realizes her adopted daughter has a lucrative chess habit, she sparks to life. Heller's performance is astounding, a world-weary match for Taylor-Joy's anxious curiosity. Alma becomes a supportive manager, yet there's something overly vicarious in her interest. She's being a good mother — and turning a teenager into her drinking buddy.

Everyone knows how to play chess, right? We've all seen The Wire? Frank has a lot of director-y fun staging Beth's duels. There are split-screens, fourth-wall staring contests, time-lapse montages of pieces moving. Taylor-Joy's hands move so fast, I kept rewinding to figure out if the video was sped up. (I think it's just gusto.) I enjoyed the wonkish specificity of Beth's strategic evolution from blitzkrieg attack to patient lateral defense. You sense that Frank is unsure just how much strategy the audience will take, and he makes some dramatic sports-movie leaps. The important games are always a spiritual dual, elaborate flirtation, and/or a private reckoning with flashback sorrow.

What works better is how the miniseries brings the whole chess subculture to life. It's an environment of cerebral swagger, diffident competitiveness, and geek love. Beth starts off playing smartly dressed young weirdoes in cafeterias, where everyone whispers longingly about a Kentucky champion named Harry Beltik (Harry Melling). Rising the ranks, she meets national contender Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), a beatnik cowboy who carries an ornamental knife. Brodie-Sangster has a lot of fun as the coolest kid in nerd club, brandishing his very own Sports Illustrated cover story and yearning for the USSR's enlightened chess culture. There are lushly art-directed arenas in Las Vegas and Mexico City, and Beth's interactions with her fellow players to take a few diagonal soap opera turns.

In Split and The Witch, Taylor-Joy's wide eyes exuded a paranoid gothic quality; she looked like what would happen if Emma Stone saw dead people. Her recent work has edged into droll comedy. All that and more comes into play here. Beth's an intellectual superhuman and an internal wreck, struggling with memories of her brilliant yet unsettled biological mother even as she nonchalantly dispatches egomaniacs. Queen's Gambit occasionally tries to expand into a larger tale of femininity, so many woman carrying hidden bags of clinking liquor bottles. The storytelling can turn a bit prosaic, though, and there's a point where all the dialogue is some kind of we-get-it warning about the dangers of obsessive greatness. Taylor-Joy adeptly plays high-functioning addiction, and I wish, I wish, I wish that her drug trips didn't involve giant chess pieces hanging down from the ceiling. Bad, digital effects, bad!

Frank's screenplays extend back a generation, from splendid '90s crime (Get Shorty, Out of Sight) through essential blockbusters (Minority Report, Logan). Netflix snared him for 2017's Emmy-winning Godless, and now the streaming service is basically employing him as a miniseries auteurist-in-residence. I heartily recommend this show, even if the last couple hours feature overt clichés and ever-blander dialogue. Queen's Gambit will be remembered as the final star-making moment for Taylor-Joy, before her movie career rockets fast and Furiosa-ly. The story is literally about an ingenue rising to global fame. But Taylor-Joy excels in the quiet moments, her eyelids narrowing as she decimates an opponent, her whole body physicalizing angry desperation when the game turns against her. The king might be in trouble. Fortunately, the queen has all the best moves. B

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