Well-produced television can make almost any profession look enticing, but it takes a stellar cast and a few eye-catching outfits to sell the game of chess as glamorous and alluring material. With all of this and more, “The Queen’s Gambit” knocks it out of the park.
Netflix’s new seven-part miniseries chronicles chess prodigy Elizabeth Harmon’s rise from antisocial, frumpy orphan to glamorous world champion, while she battles addiction and trauma against the backdrop of Cold-War era Kentucky. The story is based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel of the same name — a chess move in which a pawn is sacrificed to retain control over the board.
Harmon, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, is orphaned at nine years old and sent to Methuen Home, a girls’ orphanage in Kentucky. There, she meets a janitor, Mr. Shaibel, who mentors her and teaches her the principles of chess. He then recognizes her aptitude for the game.
Methuen introduces Harmon to the two addictions in her life: the game of chess, and the little green “tranquilizer” pills doled out to the girls each morning, which she quickly learns to depend on to enhance her chess skills.
Actress Isla Johnston plays the younger version of Harmon — stubborn and emotionless as she proves her prowess by defeating the orphanage janitor, the local chess club director and the entire chess team at the town high school.
Despite Johnston’s youth, the actress successfully portrays the stubborn-headed young prodigy beginning to dabble in substance abuse and finding an outlet for her talent at a game of numbers and patterns.
The first episode stands out stylistically from the rest of the series, with dull colors and slow, eerie pacing, but viewers hoping for a thriller can rest assured that the show picks up by the second episode.
Flashing forward six years, Taylor-Joy has taken over the role as Harmon turns 15 and is adopted by the Wheatleys, an older couple with a strained marriage and strapped finances.
Actor Marielle Heller gains little sympathy from viewers as Alma Wheatley, whom we might otherwise see as a poor excuse for a mother — money-hungry and flirting with alcohol and sedatives in front of her teenage daughter.
But Heller brings a warmth to the mother-daughter duo, a genuine admiration and love for Harmon, even when said daughter’s well-being takes a back seat to her ambitions.
Grieving from a personal familial loss but determined to defeat Russian chess master Vasily Borgov in their next match in Paris, Harmon stays with a competitor and friend, Benny Watts, played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster.
The pair of actors demonstrate great chemistry as their relationship evolves from competitors to friends, to a will-they-won’t-they situation, but Brodie-Sangster isn’t totally convincing as the cocky chess champion Watts is meant to be. His strength is clearly in the more dramatic, intimate moments, when he brings out the vulnerable side of the character.
Costume designer Gabriele Binder manages to narrate Harmon’s growth as a young woman through her clothes — brown Mary Janes and cardigans are abandoned for slim black cocktail dresses, hair scarves and bold sunglasses — accurate to each fashion trend of the late 1960s.
Taylor-Joy sells the character from the moment she first appears on screen, and as she wavers in and out of lucidity during the match with Borgov, her acting skills truly shine in moments where she shows weakness.
If anything, her talents on the screen are underutilized. The most emotion her character shows is a few tears. Taylor-Joy’s past work in thrillers such as “Split,” “The Witch” and BBC hit show “Peaky Blinders,” proves her dynamic capabilities. So, as interesting as the story is, this performance is a change of pace.
With the most important match of her life on the horizon, Harmon arrives in Moscow as a glamorous, brilliant chess player on the verge of becoming a champion, in contrast to Borgov’s stoic, cold Russian persona, which is stereotypical of Cold-War-era characterization.
The final episode, in which a phone call from Watts for advice on the match catapults Harmon to victory, inches dangerously close to melodrama, which the show pointedly avoids up until then, but the satisfaction of her win makes up for it.
The series handles some topics better than others. The presence of a Russian adversary in a story set in the 1960s might be historically accurate, but it has been done countless times and the mystery around Borgov and Russia in general feels lackluster.
The soundtrack, on the other hand, is top-notch ’60s nostalgia: high school girls sing along to The Vogues on a black-and-white TV, “Stop Your Sobbing” by The Kinks blasts through a car stereo and a montage of speed chess is accompanied by the talents of Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. The music enhances the spirit of the decade, but never becomes cliché.
For a miniseries, “The Queen’s Gambit” packs a punch: addiction, genius, loss and coming of age, with a few great Monkees songs thrown in for good measure, make for the perfect weekend Netflix binge.