Arriving almost stealthily but just in time to prove 2020 isn’t all bad, The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix is a riveting story of loss, genius, addiction and chess.
Smartly and economically written, gorgeously designed and shot, and with an excellent score (by Carlos Rafael Rivera) the series however, is owned lock, stock and barrel by Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Emma).
The actor plays orphan Beth Harmon and the seven episodes detail her meteoric rise through the world chess rankings. Director/writer Scott Frank (Godless) makes full use of Taylor-Joy’s eyes throughout, which seem to sometimes threaten to burn right through the screen. It’s a frequently astonishing performance, one that starts from those eyes and manifests a dark and fascinating inner life for her character. This was clearly a rather special collaboration between the two.
Based on a 1983 thriller novel by Walter Tevis (who also wrote The Hustler, The Colour of Money and The Man Who Fell To Earth), the story moves forward propulsively but never less than thoughtfully and also highlights a complicated but tender relationship between Beth and her adoptive mother, played by Marielle Heller.
The cast is uniformly good, featuring superb turns from the likes of Isla Johnston (as young Beth), Bill Camp (the care home janitor who spark’s Beth’s nascent talent) and Moses Ingram (as Beth’s closest friend, a character we should definitely have seen more of in the narrative).
But this is Taylor-Joy’s show and a great showcase for the young actor. Frank and Taylor-Joy give us a fascinating, magnetic character in Beth, and mostly avoid making her talent magical by highlighting her obsessive and destructive traits.
The Queen’s Gambit feels very much like a piece of classic Hollywood storytelling, yet rises above that with a cool boldness that feels utterly compelling.
The series brings a wonderful, stylish slice of viewing joy (sorry, not sorry) to a pretty awful year.