Watched the entire series in one sitting, I don’t know any better recommendation! The Queen’s Gambit and Anya Taylor Joy is wonderful.
Anya Taylor-Joy plays a brilliant and troubled young woman who medicates herself with chess in Scott Frank’s mini-series for Netflix.
Openings matter a great deal in chess, and “The Queen’s Gambit,” a new Netflix mini-series about a wunderkind of the game, uses its first few minutes for the purposes of misdirection. A young woman wakes up in a disordered Paris hotel room and washes down some pills with minibar booze while racing to dress for a Very Important Game of Chess. The period is the late 1960s and the vibe is Holly Golightly groovy wild child.
But “Gambit,” whose seven episodes premiere on Friday, pulls that particular rug out from under us right away. It jumps back a decade or so, to when Beth, the fictional future prodigy (played as a child by Isla Johnston), is placed in a Kentucky orphanage after surviving the car crash that kills her mother. It’s a repressively parochial place that keeps the girls sedate by feeding them tranquilizers from a big glass jar, but the awkward, introverted Beth finds another kind of escape when she discovers chess.
A RISKY PLAY“The Queen’s Gambit” is betting that chess can make for entertaining television.
This opening episode — written and directed, as is the whole series, by Scott Frank (“Godless”) based on a novel by Walter Tevis — has an enchanting, storybook feel. Beth stumbles on the game when she’s sent on an errand to the basement lair of the orphanage’s forbidding custodian, Mr. Shaibel (a canny, finely etched performance by Bill Camp). The game immediately makes sense to her — when nothing else in her life does — and at night she runs through the moves he teaches her on an imaginary board she sees among the shadows of the prisonlike dormitory where she sleeps.
From there, as Beth (now played by Anya Taylor-Joy) is adopted out of the orphanage and her prowess gradually gains public notice, “Gambit” proceeds straightforwardly through her teenage years, showing us how she becomes the glamorous but troubled chess pro of that opening scene. It follows the beats of a sports tale, like a classic Hollywood boxing film, but it’s also a coming-of-age story about a woman succeeding in a male-dominated world, and a restrained spin on an addiction saga, as Beth rises in the chess hierarchy on a steady diet of alcohol and downers.
Frank wraps it all up in a package that’s smart, smooth and snappy throughout, like finely tailored goods. The production has a canny combination of retro Rat Pack style, in its décors and music choices, with a creamy texture, in its performances and cinematography, that is reminiscent of another Netflix period piece, “The Crown.” (This connection is reinforced by the abundance of British actors playing the American roles, including Taylor-Joy and, as three mentors and competitors for Beth’s affection, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd and Harry Melling.)
“Gambit” never quite gets back to the charm of its Dickensian opening chapter, though, and it gets thinner as it goes along. Frank pulls off his combination of themes with a lot of old-Hollywood-style skill, but in the mix, neither the sports nor the personal-demons story line hits the levels of visceral excitement or emotional payoff that you might want. In the end, it was an admirable package that I wanted to love more than I did.
That may have had something to do with the construct around which the story is built. Beth finds a refuge in chess — it’s a predictable place where she feels safe and in control. And we’re shown why she needs a refuge, beginning with flashbacks to life with her brilliant, troubled biological mother (Chloe Pirrie) and continuing through her teen years with her alcoholic, depressed adoptive mom (an excellent Marielle Heller, who directed the female coming-of-age film “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”).
Both of those elements make sense. But the question that becomes the central theme of the series — whether Beth can overcome, or even survive, the obsessiveness that powers her success and the anger that’s reflected in her superaggressive style of play — is primarily melodramatic, a fact reflected in the show’s unsatisfying conclusion.
Beth has some stumbles as she progresses from local phenom to international sensation, but they’re negligible. “Gambit” is nominally a story about overcoming great odds, but in form, it’s really a race against time: Will Beth’s remorseless rise reach a satisfying conclusion (a victory over a courtly Russian champion played by Marcin Dorocinski) before she flames out?
It’s not hard to put that out of your head and enjoy the show’s immediate pleasures, though. They include the performances of Camp, Heller, Brodie-Sangster and Taylor-Joy, who doesn’t go deep inside Beth — that would be a different show — but finds the intelligence and the humanity that lie just beneath her tics and frostiness. And Frank gives them entertaining scenes to play, as Beth gradually discovers the world — chess takes her on a journey from the Midwest to Las Vegas, New York, Paris and Moscow — and embarrassingly defeats one man after another, in chess-game scenes that are staged and shot in different, clever ways throughout the series.
If it doesn’t win you over, “Gambit” will at least play you to a draw.
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