Chess, on the face of it, is not a particularly exciting sport. It’s two people hovering over a board for hours on end (if they’re any good at the game, anyway) and the level of knowledge required for a spectator to follow what’s happening, let alone appreciate when one player makes a particularly good move is high. So it’s perhaps surprising that The Queen’s Gambit, a miniseries based on a 1980s novel that lives, eats, and breathes chess, is so thoroughly compelling from start to finish. It’s inventive directing style, sumptuous production design, and a magnetic performance from Anna Taylor-Joy make The Queen’s Gambit one of the most satisfying and compulsively watchable period dramas we’ve had in quite some time.
Beth Harmon (played by Anna Taylor-Joy as an adult, and Isla Johnston as a nine-year-old) is considered dull and completely ordinary when she turns up at the Methuen orphanage after the untimely death of her mother, who suffered from mental illness. She basically sleepwalks her way around the building for the first few days, shepherded from bed to class to church to meals and finally back to bed, but only after receiving the magical green tranquilizer pill that is doled out to each girl to keep them docile. But then she meets Mr. Shaibel, the orphanage’s janitor, and everything changes. Reluctantly at first and later with a begrudging sense of pride, he teaches her chess. She’s a natural.
Her life becomes dominated by two things: her obsession with chess, and her addictive personality, first to the green pills that help her to play entire chess games projected mentally onto the ceiling, and later to alcohol. When she’s adopted at the age of fifteen by a suburban couple from Lexington, Kentucky, whose marriage is hanging on by the thinnest of threads, the opportunity finally presents itself for her to enroll in local chess tournaments. Before long, she is considered one of the most promising young chess players in the country, if not the world. She spends her late teens and early twenties gobbling up grandmasters for breakfast. But two questions haunt her: how much of her genius is really madness, and where will her single-minded pursuit of greatness lead?
The entire production of The Queen’s Gambit hinges on Anna Taylor-Joy’s complex, enigmatic performance as Beth, and what we see here is a promising young actress completely owning a role. There is so much going on every single one of her scenes, and it only takes a few brief moments of her fixing her rivals with an inscrutable, uncompromising stare to know immediately that this is a character she was born to play. Taylor-Joy imbues Beth with fierce intelligence, a wry wit, and a massive emotional wall built up to protect her from getting hurt, so vast and impenetrable that even she doesn’t know the full extent of it. When she’s on-screen, there’s no denying it: she’s a star.
But as much as The Queen’s Gambit is The Beth Harmon Show, it also features memorable supporting performances, some from surprising quarters. Marielle Heller, known primarily for her work as a director of films like Can You Ever Forgive Me? and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, plays Beth’s adoptive mother Alma with such an aching, melancholic sense of sadness that you almost feel how badly she hurts. Thomas Brodie-Sangster takes another giant step away from his child actor past, playing Benny, a charismatic, fast-talking chess prodigy who becomes one of Beth’s closest friends. And Harry Melling, god love him, puts in an earnest, genuinely good-natured performance as Harry Beltik, who would walk over coals if he thought it would help Beth’s chess game. If there’s been a single pleasant surprise in 2020, it’s how thoroughly Melling has become the most promising former Harry Potter cast member.
The Queen’s Gambit evokes memories of Mad Men in the stylishness with which it conjures up the spirit of the early 1960s. The sets are rich and vibrant, reflecting a sort of heightened reality that Beth lives in. From the sparse, slightly surreal orphanage where Beth spends her youth to the mod decor of Beth’s house and the luxuriousness of the hotels she stays in a while competing in Mexico City and Paris, the set design is impeccable. Each location is so detailed and fully realized that there’s not a single tchotchke that feels as though it doesn’t belong. Every single one of Beth’s costumes is gorgeous, and they also do some of the heavy-lifting in terms of emphasizing her character arc as she matures. Her evolving hairstyle, too, is a touchpoint for her growth, the changes allowing Taylor-Joy to believably play a fifteen-year-old as well as a woman in her early twenties. The production design is so well-executed that you almost want to rewatch episodes just to take in the views.
So who would have thought it? A drama about chess that you can’t take your eyes off. The Queen’s Gambit is a thoughtful, gorgeously crafted coming-of-age story with massive feminist overtones (the world of chess may be stereotypically populated by milquetoast men, but men nonetheless) and a dazzling performance from Anna Taylor-Joy. If you’ve been missing having a high-quality period drama in your life, The Queen’s Gambit is a charming character study that is as much about a search for identity as it ever is about chess.