“There are two sides to the coin: the gift, and what it costs.” This is the lesson that the janitor tells her. The janitor, Mr Shaibel, spends his free time in the basement of the orphanage he works in playing chess. A young girl, Beth, takes an interest, and eventually, he begins to teach her. This is, in all likelihood, the closest relationship either of them has ever had. Him, a reserved man content to do his work and play chess, and her an orphan who never knew her father and whose mother suffered from severe mental health issues.
This is the beginning of The Queen’s Gambit, the new adaptation of Walter Tevis 1983 book of the same name, brought to the screen by Scott Frank for Netflix. The story chronicles the rise of a prodigy, a true genius at the game of chess. It follows her life through the 1960s as she combats sexism but also the isolation of genius and dangers and draws of alcoholism.
Beth, played by Isla Johnston as a child and by Anya Taylor-Joy as a teenager through to adulthood, is a compelling character and both actresses are excellent. Johnston has a manner that brings the bluntness and anger of a child left alone in the world, as well as the vulnerability of a child reaching out for new relationships. Her scenes with Bill Camp, who plays the mentor figure Mr Shaibel, are compelling and their chemistry together is one of the highlights of the first episode in particular. Camp, a talented and reliable character actor, is also excellent here. Mr Shaibel is such a reserved character, but in the moments where he shows true emotion, it shines through like the sun and warms the entire scene along with Beth’s heart.
The series really belongs to Anya Taylor-Joy though. Her performance throughout is utterly magnetic, whether she’s in the middle of an alcohol-induced breakdown or cooly gazing over her hands at an opponent she knows she is about to crush.
The story plays out like most sports dramas do, with Beth rising from nothing to becoming one of the best chess players in the world, with a stumble in the middle and a triumph in the end. Director Scott Frank knows this and plays into it, knowing exactly when to montage through the chess matches and when exactly to show them in their entirety. Each of the matches shown is tense and exciting, regardless of whether you know anything about chess at all. Combined with the period detail (pay attention to the wallpaper in this show, it is magnificent), this ends up being one of the best looking shows of the year.
The supporting cast is rounded out by the three men who capture Beth’s heart: Harry Melling as Harry Beltik, a middle-ranked player that Beth faces as a child and reconnects with as a young woman, Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Benny Watts, the reigning US champion with an eccentric rock star vibe about him, and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as the enigmatic Townes, a middle-ranked player and newspaper reporter who does a profile on Beth early on.
Each of them brings something different to the series and Beth’s life. Fortune-Lloyd is the most effective of the three being the most stable, but also the least available. Harry Melling brings his now trademark awkwardness to Beltik, who starts confidently until he figures out who he is dealing with. Brodie-Sangster is perhaps the most fun and the bohemian chess Lothario who is just too cool for school.
Where the series perhaps stumbles a little is in its treatment of alcoholism. As a lover of the book, this series is based on in part because of how frank and honest it was on this subject, the series glosses over it just a tad too much. Beth is shown drinking frequently, but rarely drinking to ruin as an alcoholic of her calibre might, and when the script requires her to be sober this presents little in the way of struggle.
I don’t have a good fix for this except perhaps to look at the length of the series. At seven episodes it’s either just too long not dive into the subject, but not too short to let them excise it entirely.
Still, this is a minor quibble on my part. While the series does slightly lag in the middle and perhaps doesn’t dive as deep into it’s more difficult themes as it should, the excellent production value and direction along with the performance of Taylor-Joy negate this almost entirely.
The Queen’s Gambit is an engrossing watch from start to finish. It is well-acted, well-directed, and looks amazing, and Anya Taylor-Joy gives the best performance of her career to date and of this year.
The Queen’s Gambit is available to stream on Netflix on October 23rd, 2020