Anya Taylor-Joy’s triumphant performance is only one of the many glories of the new Netflix miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit.”
Let’s start with the most important fact about The Queen’s Gambit: You do not need to know how to play chess to love it. The real drama lies elsewhere.
The premise for the limited series premiering on Netflix is simple enough: the struggles of a female chess prodigy with a serious pill and alcohol problem. In the wrong hands, it could easily be a Lifetime special. But the “hands” here are far more skillful: The lead role is played by the remarkable Anya Taylor-Joy. The script and direction are by Scott Frank, who wrote the screenplays for Out of Sight and Get Shorty. And the source material is a novel by the woefully underrated Walter Tevis, who wrote the books that inspired The Hustler, The Color of Money, and The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Still, I have to admit, before watching the new series, I had my doubts. The Queen’s Gambit has been one of my favorite novels for years; it’s not just a book you should read—it’s a book to reread, and it gets better every time. So I was feeling a little protective, and worried. Could anyone do this subtle novel justice? A novel where so much of the action takes place on a chess board and in the minds of the players, and where the issue of addiction is treated with far more subtlety than is usually found in films or television shows about this subject.
Oh me of little faith. I didn’t reckon on the formidable talents of either Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays chess champion Beth Harmon, or Marielle Heller, who takes the part of the woman who adopts Beth as a tween. I should add Annabeth Kelly and Isla Johnston, who play younger versions of Beth, particularly Johnston, who carries the first episode, when nine-year-old Beth discovers her affinity for chess and her fondness for the tranquilizers freely dispensed by the orphanage to which she is consigned after her mother’s suicide.