For all that chess is undoubtedly a fascinating game, it’s probably fair to say that most people don’t really think it a spectator sport. Making a show that puts it front and centre is a potentially risky move, then, and one that might not sound like the basis for a particularly enthralling series – yet, that’s exactly what Godless creator Scott Frank has done with The Queen’s Gambit, his new Netflix drama adapted from a novel of the same name by Walter Tevis.
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma) as Beth Harmon, an orphaned chess prodigy who rises to glory in mid-20th-century USA, the series is an engaging and captivating piece of work, lavishly produced and brilliantly acted. Numerous chess game set-pieces punctuate all seven episodes and not only does Frank get away with staging quite so many of them, he positively revels in it, with many of the games making for genuinely thrilling viewing.
This can be put down to two factors. For one, the invention with which Frank presents the scenes, using all manner of techniques (including excellent use of split-screen in one match) to ensure that each game feels markedly different from the last. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, because of a tour-de-force performance by Taylor-Joy in the lead role, who offers the real focal point during each match: we’re not really watching the chess here, we’re watching Taylor-Joy’s impeccable acting.
More on that later, because though Taylor-Joy dominates much of the series, she’s almost entirely absent from the first episode. Instead, young star Isla Johnston is given the chance to shine as a younger version of Beth, who finds herself arriving at a Christian orphanage in Kentucky following the death of her mother.
For much of the opening stages, Beth cuts a sullen and hopeless figure, until she chances upon janitor Mr. Shaibel playing chess in the basement and is instantly hooked. Shaibel teaches her to play, and it is apparent from the get-go that she has immense talent, with young Beth playing out games on an imaginary board on her dormitory ceiling each night. At the same time she develops a dependence on the green tablets handed out to the children at regular intervals by the orphanage, keeping a stash of them by her bedside at all times. And thus the two most significant things in Beth’s life are introduced, with the remaining episodes following her battle between talent and addiction.
The first episode offers an excellent showcase for Bill Camp as the kindly Shaibel – a character who doesn’t stick around for long but whose presence is long felt, particularly in a poignant moment in the show’s final episode. He’s one of many supporting players to turn in an excellent performance along the way, with a slew of other characters coming and going after Taylor-Joy enters the fray in episode two. Those members of The Queen’s Gambit cast include Harry Potter star Harry Melling as a local chess champ, Game of Thrones‘ Thomas Brodie-Sangster as a rock star of the circuit, and filmmaker Marielle Heller, who takes a break from her excellent directing work to put in an assured performance as Harmon’s adoptive mother.
In some ways, the show could be seen as rather run-of-the-mill. It’s a fairly standard narrative with few real surprises along the way, and many events aren’t so much foreshadowed as spelled out in huge sparkly letters. This heavy-handedness can at times be to the show’s detriment, as in one especially unsubtle scene in episode three, in which a journalist informs Beth that “creativity and psychosis often go hand in hand, or for that matter, genius and madness”. Moreover, there are a few moments of expository dialogue that see one chess rule or another described in painstaking detail, while one or two scenes towards the end of the series verge on the cloying (a phone call in the latter half of the final episode is a particular culprit.)
And yet despite those qualms, something about the series just indisputably works. The period setting is expertly realised, and though perhaps predictable the action plays out at a perfect pace, giving viewers the chance to dwell on the various obstacles in Beth’s way (which include not just substance abuse but also the difficulties of being a woman in a male-dominated space) without disrupting the rhythm of her inevitable rise to the top.
And then there’s Taylor-Joy, a performer with genuine star quality who is always a joy to watch – the manner in which she subtly changes her body language to play Beth at different stages of her life, in particular, is remarkable. It’s a performance that really grabs the viewer’s attention, and which elevates The Queen’s Gambit from a reasonable drama series to a truly engaging piece of television.