‘The Queen’s Gambit’ review: Royally irresistible chess drama


Anya Taylor-Joy is the lead star in 'The Queen's Gambit'. Photos: Handout

Everything that works in writer-director Scott Frank’s highly bingeworthy adaptation of The Queen’s Gambit, which is most everything about it, comes from treating Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel just seriously enough.

Set in the 1950s and 1960s, the show has been streaming for a week now, and it’s the sort of sleek, classy escapism that makes the recently announced Netflix price (in the United States) hike seem like no big pandemic deal.

No less so than Enola Holmes or the dreaded Holidate, to name two other Netflix diversions, this one offers a wealth of angles and entry points for a broad audience, teenaged girls among them. The Queen’s Gambit may be rated TV-MA but, aside from some occasional rough language amid a lot of drug use, the story operates as a sleek, wish-fulfilment fairy tale. I recommended it to the 15-year-old in our house; we’ll see what she says about it.

The tensions start on the chess board and ripple out from there. They’re driven by a compelling tough nut of a heroine, risking addiction as well as her sanity in her meteoric rise in international chess circles. Like Whiplash, or a calmer version of Black Swan, The Queen’s Gambit leans into its protagonist’s magnificent, punishing obsession.

“People like you, you’re two sides of the same coin, ” as her mentor, played by the marvelous Bill Camp, tells young Beth, played by Isla Johnston as a preteen and the series star, Anya Taylor-Joy, as a teenager and young adult. “You’ve got your gift. And you’ve got what it costs.”

Young Beth sheds one life (with a troubled, suicidal mother) for another, at the orphanage where she meets, among others, her one true friend Jolene (Moses Ingram). A few years later, Beth’s adopted by a nearby Lexington, Kentucky couple on the marital skids.

Marielle Heller, the actress now best known as an often inspired director (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), emerges as a key supporting player as Beth’s adoptive mother. They come to know and understand each other, gradually. They’re fellow artists under the skin. Also, both understand the seduction of pills and liquor all too well. (Heller’s character refers to her little green and white pills as “my tranquility medicine.”)

'The Queen's Gambit' has received positive reviews from critics. 'The Queen's Gambit' has received positive reviews from critics.

Flashbacks of her earlier years haunt Beth throughout. At the orphanage, she learns chess from the stoic janitor portrayed unerringly by Camp. It’s her lifeline or her curse, depending. The Queen’s Gambit charts her progress, her blinkered devotion to the game, and an eccentric, beautifully cast array of friends, occasional lovers and once and future chess adversaries, as Beth moves from regional triumphs to national to Mexico City, Paris and Cold War-era Moscow.

Taylor-Joy is terrific. She has been for years now, certainly since the 2015 wonder The Witch. She makes Beth, who rarely misses anything, a sphinx whose secrets we’re let in on from the start yet remain fruitfully mysterious and subtly suggested.

The character, as conceived in the novel, doesn’t really extend beyond two dimensions (she’s either reckless train wreck, or tightly coiled, laser-focused opponent) into a third. But the scenes and eventual travels with her mother are delightful, and as Beth’s chess world friends and confidantes roll back into her life, years later, The Queen’s Gambit creates a satisfying circularity.

A few nits. Nobody, and I mean nobody, talks like they’re from Kentucky. The cinematography undercuts the first-rate production and costume design with a penchant for heavy-handed, copper-coloured “period” tones. The final episode “delivers” a mite shamelessly. Small matters. The fun throughout, the payoff, is in seeing Beth yank the rug out from one mis-underestimating lunkhead and authority figure after another.

Frank’s earlier screenwriting credits include such pleasing, off-centre winners as Out of Sight, Get Shorty and Minority Report. Faced with a steady stream of chess matches to dramatise, he accomplishes more modestly what Martin Scorsese did so grandly in Raging Bull: he gives each square-off a different visual personality and approach.

Through it all, Taylor-Joy’s singular, wide-set gaze betrays flickers of confidence, panic, assurance, doubt, depending on the moment.

The results aren’t “important," or “improving.” They’re just pretty irresistible. – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service

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No prior chess expertise required to watch this TV series on chess.

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