'The Queen's Gambit' offers irresistible coming-of-age drama, no chess expertise required
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 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-fulfillment 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.")
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 confidants 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-colored "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 misunderestimating lunkhead and authority figure after another.
Frank's earlier screenwriting credits include such pleasing, off-center winners as "Out of Sight," "Get Shorty" and "Minority Report." Faced with a steady stream of chess matches to dramatize, 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.
'THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT'
Running time: 7 episodes, approximately 6 hours, 30 minutes
Screening: Now on Netflix.