Who would have thought that this seven-episode Netflix series – built around an intellectual game like chess – could be so compelling?
It begins in Kentucky in 1958, as young Beth Harmon (Isla Johnston) is placed in a Dickensian orphanage after a car crash killed her mother. Tipped off by an older girl named Jolene (Moses Ingram), Beth discovers that they’re being force-fed habit-forming drugs to “tranquilize” them.
One day, when Beth wanders into the basement to clean erasers, she befriends the grumpy custodian, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), who teaches her how to play chess. Beth becomes so adept so quickly that when she’s invited to compete with the local school’s chess team, she trounces every player.
Years pass and teenage Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy) is adopted by a suburban Lexington couple: alcoholic, piano-playing Alma (writer/director Marielle Heller) and Allston Wheatley (Patrick Kennedy), who often disappears on ‘business trips.’
Realizing that her phenomenal chess acumen is her ticket to fame and fortune, Beth starts competing in local tournaments, followed by national and international matches, culminating in Moscow, where she faces legendary Russian champion Vasily Bogov (Marcin Dorocinski).
Despite Beth’s confidently frosty demeanor, three different competitors (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, Harry Melling) are openly vying for her attention and affection.
Based on a novel by Walter Trevis (“The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “The Hustler”), it’s written and directed by Scott Frank (“Godless”), who turns this fictional character-study into a fascinating coming-of-age drama about an obsessive, self-destructive young woman taking control of her life and succeeding in what is traditionally considered a man’s domain.
What’s most remarkable is the sustained tension of the chess scenes; filmed with authenticity, thanks to New York City chess coach Bruce Pandolfini and former world champion Garry Kasparov. And, if you’re intrigued about chess-on-film, find “Searching for Bobby Fischer” (1993) and “Queen of Katwe” (2016).
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Queen’s Gambit” is an intriguing 8 – about the emotional price paid for genius.