In order to be a truly great chess player — not just a good one, but one of the greats — you need to possess a canny combination of concentration, acuity, and nerve. What seems like a simple board of 64 squares quickly becomes a battlefield; the key to winning the ensuing fight is being able to analyze and anticipate an opponent’s moves without your face betraying a single calculation. Chess is such a mentally punishing, esoteric game — which makes it extremely hard to portray onscreen with half the thrill it might have in reality, especially if the viewer doesn’t know all the rules (and chances are, you don’t). But “The Queen’s Gambit” manages to personalize the game and its players thanks to clever storytelling and, in Anya Taylor-Joy, a lead actor so magnetic that when she stares down the camera lens, her flinty glare threatens to cut right through it. Most crucially, the series uses chess as its engine for a more complicated narrative about female genius, the allure of addiction and the gift of autonomy.
From writer and director Scott Frank (“Logan”), and based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel, “The Queen’s Gambit” tells the story of a taciturn orphan whose unflinching demeanor and analytical brain reveal her to be a lethal chess prodigy. When we first meet 9 year-old Beth (Isla Johnston) in Kentucky circa the early ’60s, she’s adjusting to life at a Kentucky orphanage while quietly mourning the sudden death of her mother (Chloe Pirrie). Then, a chance encounter with the custodian (Bill Camp) introduces her to chess, and it’s as if the game unlocks a secret room within her own mathematical mind where everything makes sense, a place where she can be safe and in control. That Beth discovers this about herself at the same time as the orphanage is giving her a daily tranquilizer only intensifies her obsession. She spends years lying awake at night, high as a kite, staring at her ceiling where ghostly apparitions of chess boards appear to let her play as many games as she wants. In these moments, “The Queen’s Gambit” almost becomes an “Alice in Wonderland” story — except in this case, the heroine is an unsettling orphan playing chess on her ceiling through a drugged fog.
The series, written and directed entirely by Frank, sometimes threatens to get overwhelmed by these breaks in reality and format, and the CGI chess pieces are only occasionally as sinister as they’re supposed to be. At the show’s bluntest moments, Beth’s time in the orphanage and early childhood flashbacks often feel like they’re of an entirely different show. But as Beth grows up (and is subsequently played by Taylor-Joy), “The Queen’s Gambit” becomes very shrewd about its choices and keeps the narrative going at an impressively fast clip — making it a sharp, welcome contrast to the all too many lethargic streaming dramas out there.
Unfolding over seven episodes, the limited series follows Beth’s rise to the top of the competitive chess world and all the work she does and the suffering she endures to get there. Growing up, her closest ally is the custodian and her bunkmate Jolene (Moses Ingram); once she leaves the orphanage, her confidante becomes her adoptive mother Alma (Marielle Heller), a lonely woman in need of company outside her spiteful husband. Ingram makes the absolute most of sometimes clunky dialogue (Jolene is the only major non-white character in the series, and it shows). And while Heller’s mostly known for her patient, empathetic directing of films such as “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” she brings the same qualities to her acting here, deepening Alma’s characterization into something so painfully tender she might as well be a walking bruise. Both flesh out characters that most obviously show Frank’s limits as a writer, giving them welcome depth beyond the page.
While Jolene and Alma get the closest to cracking Beth’s heart, she’s otherwise constantly surrounded by men. She resents that fact being pointed out to her with every chess match she obliterates, but with her shock of bright red hair and increasingly glamorous wardrobe (courtesy of costume designer Gabriele Binder), Beth also takes some pleasure out of drawing everyone’s intrigued eye. Along the way to the top, she collects the hearts of men equally frustrated and enthralled by her: a sincere local boy (Henry Melling), a fellow cocky prodigy (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), a kind-eyed writer (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) who comes the closest to stealing her heart right back. Even the steely Russian champion (Marcin Dorocinski) whose face rarely moves an inch finds himself drawn to this strange girl and her astonishing mind. Countless chess matches begin and end on Beth’s face as she stares coolly across the board at her opponent, waiting for the moment she can strike him down. In most actors’ hands, these scenes would become too boring for words. In Taylor-Joy’s, they’re mesmerizing.
It’d be easy for the show to indulge too much in Beth’s allure and make her some sort of Manic Pixie Dream Genius, and it doesn’t always resist the temptation. But more often than not, it dives deep enough into her psyche and reveals enough weaknesses that she’s never invincible or unknowable. She’s a mastermind, but also an angry obsessive with a healthy ego and a love for obliterating herself before anyone else can do it to her. She wants to win, but more than that, she wants some place — someone — to call home. When “The Queen’s Gambit” gives both Beth and Taylor-Joy the room to tap into the twin veins of her fury and longing, it’s the best kind of bildungsroman. What could’ve just been a clever show quickly becomes a portrait of a special, flawed person that reveres her fire as much as her brilliance.
“The Queen’s Gambit” premieres Friday, October 23 on Netflix.