Scott Frank (“Godless,” “Out of Sight”) brings the rich writing of Walter Tevis (“The Hustler,” “The Color of Money”) to life in his nuanced, accomplished seven-part adaptation of “The Queen’s Gambit,” premiering on October 23 on Netflix. Frank deftly rises above the trappings of a relatively straightforward melodrama by focusing on the complex character at the center of this story of genius, addiction, and redemption. With echoes of “Mad Men” in its period and production values, “The Queen’s Gambit” is the kind of adult-driven storytelling that viewers regularly accuse the Hollywood machine of not making anymore. Well, they made it here. And it’s great.
“The Queen’s Gambit” opens in the 1950s with the death of Beth Harmon’s mother, who it is implied killed herself and almost her child by intentionally crashing her car. Beth (played by Annabeth Kelly as a child in the premiere) is transferred to an orphanage, where she struggles to find herself in a world of extreme discipline and actual drugging of children. With the state providing tranquilizers to keep kids in line, young Beth develops an addiction problem quickly, one that’s amplified by her early belief that she needs these magic pills to succeed at the only thing she loves in the world, the game of chess. A gruff janitor named Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) teaches Beth the rules of chess but quickly determines that she is a chess prodigy, one of those rare people born with a God-given gift. As Beth matures, she devours books about chess, spending her nights staring at the ceiling, where pieces literally come to life and move about the imaginary board.
By the second episode, Beth is played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who is in pretty much every scene for the remainder of the series. First, Beth is adopted by a woman named Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller, director of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” proving that she’s a hell of an actress too), whose husband basically got her a child to try to keep her happy and quiet, before leaving her. Alma feeds Beth’s strengths and weaknesses, encouraging her undeniable chess talents and feeding into her introversion and eventual alcoholism. Alma treats her depression with alcohol and basically teaches her daughter to do the same, even as they become more and more famous in the world of chess, traveling the world and winning competitions wherever Beth goes.
There are men along Beth’s journey. The first major one is Harry Beltik (Harry Melling), one of the first masters that Harmon beats in a tournament, and a kind soul who quickly realizes that he’s in the presence of a generational talent at the game. Beth also grows close to a gregarious personality in the always-talking Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), a chess talent who helps guide Beth along the way. However, Frank is careful not to turn “The Queen’s Gambit” into a story of men propping up female success. If anything, Beth isolates herself further as she gets more successful, pushing connection away in favor of alcoholism and addiction, fueling her generally antisocial nature. She’s only happy when she’s playing chess, and she self-medicates at all other times until it starts to impact her meteoric rise.
Anya Taylor-Joy takes a role here that could have been all melodramatic tics and make this complex character feel completely three-dimensional. It’s a rich part thanks to Frank’s notable writing talent, and Taylor-Joy nails it, finding subtle beats even as the narrative verges into melodrama. It’s in the way she always crosses her arms or looks downward when she feels threatened. It’s the look in her eyes when she knows she’s won or lost a game. It’s in the body language differences when she’s with Alma instead of the men in her life. She approaches life the way she approaches chess, trying to figure out her opponents’ moves and how to come out on top, but Taylor-Joy always makes the subtle choice to convey these aspects of her character. In many ways, the star of “Split” has been given the most complex character she’s played yet, and she finds another level to her already notable career. It’s one of the best television performances of the year, and the ensemble rises to support it, including excellent work from Camp, Heller, and Melling, who proves to have more range than recent slimy roles in films like “The Old Guard” and “The Devil All the Time” displayed. It’s telling that there’s really not a weak note in the entire ensemble, which is a credit to Frank’s skills as a writer and director (he helmed all seven episodes too).
In many ways, this is Frank’s most ambitious project, taking place across the globe as Beth Harmon’s star rises through the world of competitive chess. The technical elements are visually sumptuous without ever drawing too much attention to the fact that this show may have had the highest costume design budget on Netflix outside of “The Crown.” “The Queen’s Gambit” is just a rich show to take in visually, admiring the way it can seamlessly jump from Mexico City to Paris to Russia in a manner that feels both realistic and yet heightened at the same time. At times, it reminds one of Douglas Sirk-era melodrama because it’s so rich with colors and beauty. Still, Frank finds the balance that never allows those elements to overshadow the character piece he’s written. It’s also a gorgeously shot show by Steven Meizler and contains a beautiful score by Carlos Rafael Rivera, both of whom collaborated with Frank on his award-winning “Godless” as well. (The ace editing from Michelle Tesoro, also a “Godless” vet, deserves acclaim as well. The chess matches, in particular, are brilliantly assembled.)
A story about a chess prodigy may be a tough sell in the unending chaos that is 2020, but one hopes that “The Queen’s Gambit” would serve as a reminder that quality writing can always find an audience. With production values that compare with anything on television this year, a performance at the center that never falters, and the kind of rich storytelling more common to literature than television, this is one of the most consistently entertaining and impressive shows of 2020. [A-]