There have been a number of strong Netflix miniseries over the years, including “Unorthodox,” “Alias Grace,” “Unbelievable,” and “When They See Us.” Now add “The Queen’s Gambit” to the list. An adaptation of Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel, it’s a smart and entertaining seven-episode ride about a brilliant orphan who finds her way to the top of the mostly male realm of competitive chess.
Anya Taylor-Joy (she starred in “Emma”) plays Beth Harmon, an unusual girl who is sent to an orphanage after her troubled mother dies in a car crash. She begins a friendship with the custodian, who teaches her how to play chess and soon recognizes that she’s a prodigy. To keep the girls mellow, the orphanage feeds them tranquilizers every day — something Beth enjoys profoundly, and continues to pursue after she is eventually adopted by an unhappy couple. But still she fights to rise in the chess ranks, with the support of her adoptive mother, played memorably by Marielle Heller (who is also the director of “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”).
It’s a beautiful-looking production, created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott, and the second half of the miniseries manages to make Beth’s chess competitions — including some set in Cold War Russia — surprisingly dynamic even if you don’t know how to play the game. As Beth, Taylor-Joy is vague and numbed-out (after a traumatic and unexamined childhood) yet actively sharp when it comes to achieving her goals. She is a dour loner with serious attachment issues, but her commitment to chess (and pills and alcohol) is fierce, and she comes alive at the board. There were moments when she brought to mind Benedict Cumberbatch as “Patrick Melrose,” a harsher, more ironic portrait of another brilliant addict with horrific childhood scars. And the side characters bring some of the personality that Beth lacks, including Bill Camp as the nurturing custodian and Thomas Brodie-Sangster as another young chess genius who recognizes Beth’s gifts.
Ultimately, “The Queen’s Gambit” could probably have achieved the same potency in six rather than seven episodes, but that’s just a quibble. It is a transporting tale of an extraordinary life and a window onto a world of addiction and empowerment, pawns and queens.