‘The Queen’s Gambit’: Anya Taylor-Joy Makes All the Right Moves in Netflix’s Brilliant Chess Saga

Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” approaches chess the way other shows or movies have profiled musical prodigies. Much of the impact of this limited series centers on a memorable performance by Anya Taylor-Joy, who is tasked with playing a young woman riding the tiger of genius while still grappling with all of those faults and emotional scars that make us human. 

Taylor-Joy plays Beth Harmon, who early in the series has been left without parents and enters a Kentucky orphanage. It’s the 1960s and a young girl, if not all children, is still expected to follow strict codes of edict and conduct. Never fitting in with the rest of the crowd, Beth makes friends with the institution’s janitor (Bill Camp) when she catches him playing chess in the basement. She quickly picks up the game to the point of obsession. Her perceptions of the game and her overall environment are also enhanced by the tranquilizers the girls are given at night. Upon reaching high school age, Beth is adopted by a couple, Allston (Patrick Kennedy) and Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller). Soon Beth begins entering chess tournaments and makes new friends, and rivals. The local men find it curious and threatening that a woman is not only good at the game, but superior to their own skills. In no time Beth is going to national championships, then overseas tournaments, with the feared players of the Soviet Union becoming her main objective. When Alma’s marriage to Allston falls apart, she becomes Beth’s manager. But along with the fame and glory come other temptations, like drinking and hard partying. All of it swirls around Beth as she still processes the ghosts of her own past.

“The Queen’s Gambit,” based on a novel by Walter Tevis, is a surprising delivery from writer/director Scott Frank, who is best known for penning gritty thrillers like “Minority Report” and “Logan.” But in the same way Frank has taken familiar genres and found more human dimensions, he takes the concept of a sport prodigy to make a much richer profile. Like any discipline, chess is a craft that requires passion, practice and talent, at least to become a master at the professional level. Beth’s journey is like Russell Crowe’s in “A Beautiful Mind” or Mozart in “Amadeus.” Chess, like mathematics and music in those films, seems to be the natural inclination her brain embraces. To put it plainly, she’s brilliant. Frank likes to take his time showing us how the game works and how Beth begins to develop strategy. Early scenes with the janitor have a wonderful sense of someone picking up a skill on their own, out of pure love for it. And later Beth will pour over her chessboard and various moves like a musician trying to find the right note. On this level “The Queen’s Gambit” is a fun sports film, with supporting roles that include familiar characters like Harry (Harry Melling), who starts off as a rival but becomes a friend, or Benny (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), another gifted player who gives Beth her first taste of annoying defeat. Benny sports a hat and jacket like a chess-playing outlaw, which of course means he has a gambling problem. Yet Frank doesn’t write these characters as shallow plot devices. Their behaviors mask insecurities and flaws. Benny, like Beth, is cocky, but it’s a façade to hide his own vulnerability, especially of the heart when he begins to like Beth as more than just a colleague.

It would also be a mistake to tag this as a “chess series.” The best moments in the episodes are not always about the game. In fact, Frank barely gives us any of the elongated, heart-pounding competitive scenes we would expect, although the finale does have a fittingly suspenseful climax in the USSR. This is really the story of a woman’s growth amid the social changes of the 1960s. We first meet Beth as a young girl alone in the world, with only hazy flashbacks to her troubled mother, in a narrative that will unfold little by little during the series. She becomes a teenager in a ‘60s environment where conservative manners dominate the school system, but the kids still sneak away to make out or mock each other’s shoes. With keen psychological insight, Frank captures Beth feeling left behind or slightly stunted, since everyone else is exploring sex while she’s devoted to chess. Like many a gifted prodigy, Beth cannot find her place in the regular order of “society.” She’s lucky that Alma also feels like an outsider when her husband leaves, which at that time could mark you. She encourages Beth’s talent, going so far as to happily write fake sick notes for class so Beth can participate in tournaments. It also helps that Beth discovers that a champion can start making money off their passion. These moments are also a reminder that genius can’t make it on its own. Everyone needs help. How many Beethovens are lost out there because they were not lucky enough to have an Alma or mentor?

In the tradition of films like “Hilary and Jackie,” “The Queen’s Gambit” also dives into the darker side of talent and success. Chess players are not necessarily going to become Jim Morrison, but Beth develops an early taste for narcotics at the orphanage, where the tranquilizers help her vividly picture a chessboard high above her bed. While traveling and competing, Beth will go on her own drinking binges and wild moments where even someone like Benny will be left rattled. It’s not a judgmental portrayal, but a portrait of a woman seeking her own sense of freedom. Beth has to prove herself in a world where the men feel dominant and can’t accept the best player is a she. Even a subtle romance with a writer (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) is carried out on her terms. Chess and her talent for it has given Beth the ability to make choices in a way her more conformist peers wouldn’t understand, or they will once the Summer of Love and its sweeping cultural changes arrives.

“The Queen’s Gambit” is an intelligent and personal period piece. It gives us young characters who are smart and flawed, yet also bold and inspiring. Anya Taylor-Joy gives a performance that is extremely intricate. She doesn’t do the “crazy genius” stereotype, but plays Beth like a brilliant individual who becomes used to holding in the fire, only gradually letting it out as she gains more experience out in the world. She also crystalizes true obsession. When you love something so much it’s not a career, but your life. Beth is one of those lucky few who can defy convention and live doing what they are called to do by sheer vocation. But genius also brings its gifts and dangers.

The Queen’s Gambit” begins streaming Oct. 23 on Netflix.