Netflix's chess-themed The Queen's Gambit is a triumph for everyone involved.
The Queen's Gambit is available on Netflix
The Queen’s Gambit is a brilliant adaptation that is anchored by a career-defining performance from Anya Taylor-Joy.
Based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Walter Tevis, the limited series follows chess prodigy Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) on her arduous path to become world champion. As she navigates through the Grandmaster ranks, she is forced to face her traumatic past and spiraling drug and alcohol addiction.
The show begins with a clever timeline mechanic. The first shot of the aptly titled premiere episode, Openings (each title is a chess term and ingeniously relates to the events in that episode), is of a visibly hungover Beth as she is awoken by a loud knock at the door. Struggling to climb out of the bathtub while still wearing her dress from the night before, she tumbles to the floor and navigates through the empty bottles and dirty clothes littering her luxury hotel room. It becomes clear this takes place closer to the climax of the show, as it quickly cuts from the face of a 22-year-old Beth to that of a younger version of her. The viewer then witnesses the main character’s journey from this point leading up to the moment the show opens with. This extremely effective storytelling decision is one of many reasons why The Queen’s Gambit is among the best of the Netflix Original offerings.
This series is primarily a dramatic character study of Beth, who is a multilayered protagonist that suffers from significant emotional and psychological issues, which manifest in the form of severe substance abuse. Her unprecedented talent as a chess master is hampered and even jeopardized by her constant pill-popping and boozing. However, these benders do not occur right out of the gate, as creator Scott Frank (Godless and A Walk Among the Tombstones) does an excellent job of illustrating Beth’s gradual descent into her addiction. A few tranquilizers before bed in her younger years at the orphanage and her adoptive mother offering her a sip of a martini are the tinder for an inevitable wildfire. It is not a full-on plummet, but rather a steadier decline to her rock bottom.
Anya Taylor-Joy is mesmerizing as the incredibly gifted, yet deeply isolated and gravely self-destructive Beth. She depicts every ounce of her pain, motivation, apathy, arrogance, and solitude with extraordinary finesse. Her portrayal of an increasingly damaging dive into drug and alcohol dependency is both frightening and remarkable. Taylor-Joy masterfully exhibits all the shifts in mood, internal conflict, lashing out, reluctant acceptance, and full-blown calamity that accompanies this affliction. She also manages to convey Beth’s tremendous intellect, selectively sly wit, and intermittent desire for a deeper human connection. The exceptional acting is appropriately subtle at first as it evolves into a proper tour de force. Her performance is guaranteed to stick with the viewer long after the finale’s credits roll and should certainly be in the conversation come award season.
She is backed by a fantastic supporting cast featuring the likes of Bill Camp, Marielle Heller, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Henry Melling, Moses Ingram, Isla Johnston, and Marcin Dorocinski. Bill Camp plays Beth’s mentor, Mr. Shaibel, who is responsible for igniting the spark for her unparalleled passion for chess. His quiet, yet powerful presence is a result of another understated Camp performance that will be familiar to fans of his body of work.
Marielle Heller plays Beth’s adoptive mother, Alma and delivers a noteworthy performance of her own. Her character’s frequent mood swings fluctuate from flighty exuberance to paralyzing bouts of depression and she almost always has a drink in her hand. Heller portrays this troubled character with poise and has impressive chemistry with Taylor-Joy’s Beth.
Isla Johnston is wonderful as 8-year-old Beth. She is in virtually every scene of the first episode and is truly superb throughout. The younger version of the protagonist is quieter than her older self so a lot more is conveyed through facial expressions and various mannerisms, all which Johnston adeptly communicates.
The phenomenal writing in The Queen’s Gambit does not miss a beat and the character development achieved over the course of seven episodes is astonishing. The dialogue is riveting, all the conversations have a profound sense of meaning to them, there is no filler, and it is incredibly well-paced. The seven episodes range from 46 to 67 minutes and move with astounding grace throughout. The fact the show revolves around the calculated and precise world of chess makes the consistent level of excitement that much more noteworthy.
The matches are genuinely rousing, and a few are especially pulse-pounding. The time before and after these bouts are also quite enthralling. The segments of Beth’s pregame rituals feature some unique visual effects. Her rigorous training regiments in between tournaments have a “Rocky-esque” feel to them and provide ample opportunity for the supporting cast to shine.
Soundtrack & Setting
Composer Carlos Rafael Rivera, who earned an Emmy for his original theme music for Scott Frank’s Godless, has struck the right chords again with a soundtrack that is downright entrancing. The score is beautiful and matches the on-screen action impeccably, particularly during the more climactic sequences. It blends in flawlessly with the 1960s atmosphere, which is authentically presented in a multitude of settings across the globe. From glamorous hotels in Paris and Russia to cramped apartments and hectic universities stateside, this an engrossing treat for the eyes from start to finish.
Scott Frank has succeeded in giving life to the Walter Tevis novel in a faithful and immensely entertaining fashion. Backed by an outstanding performance from Anya Taylor-Joy, The Queen’s Gambit belongs at the top of every watchlist.
PG Score: 8.5/10
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