It’s not often that the most popular item in the zeitgeist is also the best of its kind. ‘The Queen’s Gambit’, a seven episode limited series on Netflix, ushered under the singular, meticulous vision of writer/director Scott Frank, featuring an iconic, star-making performance from up-and-coming actress Anya Taylor-Joy, is one such example. Seemingly coming out of nowhere to capture the attention of many on the streaming service (it was #1 until it was unseated by the 4th season of ‘The Crown’), the series about a fictional chess prodigy navigating the male-dominated world of competitive tournaments through the 1960s, while also experiencing the highs and lows of youthful addiction, is an absolute triumph.
The series benefits from its relative brevity and sparing use of various supporting players. Unlike many unbridled shows on the steaming service, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’, is a tight seven episodes, designed to either propel the whims of a binger or savor across multiple sittings. Each episode features its own themes and pat storytelling, yet propels the narrative through time, as the chess competition for the main character grows in scope and stakes. The ascendancy of Taylor-Joy’s Beth Harmon to the heights of fame in this insular world, is matched by impeccable scenery, art direction, and costuming, from the dingy grays of the orphanage basement where she grew up, to the period-appropriate detailed wallpaper lining the suburban home of her foster mother (Marielle Heller, mainly known as a director of Oscar-nominated films like ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’), all the way to the bright colors and Art Deco of 60s Vegas, Mexico City, and Paris. Through it all, Frank alters his direction to match the interior settings, locale, and internal language of his star.
Anya Taylor-Joy has been making waves in genre fare like ‘The Witch’ and M.Night Shyamalan’s ‘Split’ & ‘Glass’ for the past few years. While she played these roles with a captivating stillness and quiet reserve, she takes center stage for the entirety of this series, save for the first episode that charts her childhood (played in flashback by a convincing Isla Johnston as young Beth). Taylor-Joy has the unique ability to convey an inner dialogue without saying a word, letting her expressive eyes and body language tell her story rather than bulky exposition. Frank knows enough to allow the camera and the actors to draw the audience in, not wasting a single shot or second on extraneous explanation, or meandering subplots. The assembled cast is also smartly in service to Beth’s story, popping in and out of the series at opportune times to get her back on track. What’s fascinating about these relationships and Beth’s succumbing to addiction, are the complex ways they are presented. Frank upends audience expectation by subverting tropes of drama and trauma – just when the viewer thinks they have a relationship all figured out, either with various mentors and rivals, or with tranquilizers and booze, the series defies all easy or rote resolution, particularly regarding the link between talent/creativity and substance abuse.
‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is a riveting masterclass in acting, directing, as well as a real artistic achievement. The series works on multiple levels. It’s a sports movie with all the cliches brilliantly staged. It’s a coming of age drama with all the requisite elements. It’s a complex meditation on addiction, with all its romance and perils. Ultimately it’s also a most satisfying series from start to finish, a perfect salve and a miraculous escape . . .
* * * * (out of 4 stars) -or- A