clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Isn’t Just a Chess Drama. It’s an Anya Taylor-Joy Showcase.

The budding star at the center of Scott Frank’s new Netflix series has a rare magnetism, the kind that can sell even the most esoteric of subjects

Netflix/Ringer illustration

The last movie I saw in theaters was Emma., Autumn de Wilde’s pointedly punctuated adaptation of the classic Jane Austen novel. de Wilde’s Emma. revels in Regency period detail, all gorgeous frippery and drawing rooms arranged just so. But all those symmetrical compositions require a center, both literal and metaphorical, and Emma.’s is the young performer who embodies the title character: the 24-year-old actress Anya Taylor-Joy.

Taylor-Joy is one of a handful of exceptions to the rule that They Just Don’t Make ’Em Like That Anymore—“’Em” meaning “movie stars” and “Like That” meaning “performers forging successful careers through small, interesting projects,” not through superhero movies or TikTok dance challenges. (Notably, Taylor-Joy did appear in New Mutants, the cursed production now enduring a tepid quarantine release.) Taylor-Joy’s first film role, after getting cut out of a bit part in 2014’s Vampire Academy, was the lead in The Witch, Robert Eggers’s desaturated Sundance hit about the horrors of the patriarchy in Puritan New England. As Thomasin, the eldest daughter of a family exiled to the haunted wilderness, Taylor-Joy offered a solid foundation for an often-shaky metaphor: The titular witch represents female liberation, but also eats babies; Taylor-Joy is magnetic enough to ward off any follow-up questions until well after the credits roll.

In the half-decade since, Taylor-Joy has delved into more straightforward horror (M. Night Shyamalan’s Split and Glass), boosted another buzzy debut (Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds), and banked a film with Edgar Wright (the upcoming Last Night in Soho). Last month, she was officially announced as George Miller’s pick for a younger version of Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa in an upcoming Mad Max spinoff, the ultimate cosign for a star on the rise. Now she’s reached another milestone, characteristically ahead of schedule: becoming the latest A-lister to anchor a glossy TV miniseries.

Premiering on Netflix this Friday, The Queen’s Gambit is the latest effort from the prolific writer Scott Frank, who cocreated the effort with Allan Scott and also directs. Frank’s previous effort at Netflix was the handsome but disappointing Godless, a Western that sadly neglected its fascinating hook: an all-female town made up of mining widows. Based on Walter Tevis’s novel from 1983, The Queen’s Gambit is another story of a female protagonist in a traditionally male space, albeit a more focused one. Taylor-Joy plays Beth Harmon, a Kentucky orphan who turns out to be a chess prodigy when she comes across the game at age 9. In just a few years, Beth’s talent propels her to the insular yet high-flying world of international chess in the 1960s—though wherever she plays, her demons are never far behind.

Beth’s trajectory is classically Dickensian, verging on the overexaggerated. After a car accident kills her mother, a mathematician and troubled genius in her own right, Beth ends up at the Methuen Home for Girls. Headmistress Helen Deardorff (Christiane Seidel) is no Mrs. Hannigan, but while not outright abusive, Methuen is hardly a pleasant place to grow up. There, Beth acquires a wisecracking best friend named Jolene (Moses Ingram), who dubs her “cracker,” and a terse, taciturn mentor in janitor Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), who teaches her chess fundamentals in the orphanage basement. These are well-trodden archetypes, some uncomfortable (a Black supporting character who insists she’s “not here to save” Beth, which feels like protesting too much) and some simply familiar in a fairy-tale sort of way.

Beth, too, is an archetype, but an inverted one. The prickly savant may be the defining TV trope of the 21st century, from antihero prestige dramas to network procedurals like House. A few of these characters have been women—Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans; Rachel Goldberg in UnReal—though few enough that a concept like “Searching for Bobby Fischer, but about a woman with substance misuse issues” has an inherent appeal. Beth forms a dependency on tranquilizers when the Methuen staff uses them to subdue unruly children; she finds the chemically induced calm helps her to visualize the chessboard on the ceiling at night. As a teenager, she’s adopted by a lonely housewife named Mrs. Wheatley, played by the director Marielle Heller. Mrs. Wheatley, neglected by her absentee husband, takes to drowning her sorrows. She supports Beth, whose talent is quickly recognized once she starts competing. But she also enables her, introducing a new vice and encouraging her to let loose.

The Queen’s Gambit doesn’t delve into these themes so much as it gestures at them; as in Godless, the parts of Queen’s Gambit that adhere to a formula threaten to overwhelm the parts that make it unique. (“Though I am no longer a wife, I believe I can learn to be a mother,” is how Mrs. Wheatley expresses her complex inner life.) Into the gap between script and screen steps Taylor-Joy, who gives Beth the riveting intensity required to spend seven hours watching someone think. Isla Johnston, who plays a younger version of Beth, is also excellent, conveying the detached intelligence that makes Beth so skilled, yet so ill-adjusted to everyday life. But it’s Taylor-Joy who shows Beth’s transformation from surly teen to worldly, stylish woman. Beth grows to love fashion and parties and a jet-setting lifestyle, though it’s only window dressing for the raw, savage intelligence that lies beneath. It’s all fun and games until she sits down to play.

With her widely spaced eyes, expressive face, and a femininity that leads men to chronically underestimate her, Taylor-Joy’s Beth invokes Jodie Comer’s star-making turn as the assassin Villanelle. (The Killing Eve comparisons go from obvious to inevitable when Beth starts sashaying around Moscow in fabulous outfits.) Along with Florence Pugh, another young English actor with a Hall of Fame TV performance under her belt, Taylor-Joy and Comer form a rarefied class of young talent, recalling titans of the past while promising a thrilling future.

Chess is as wonky as it is complex, and viewers of The Queen’s Gambit won’t come away with a finer understanding of what separates a Sicilian defense from the move that gives the show its name. We’re told that Beth is a merciless player, fast on the attack but impulsive and easily frustrated when knocked off her game—but we come to understand this less from what other characters say about Beth and more from how Taylor-Joy brings her to life. Chess is a mental sport, an interior exercise. Taylor-Joy brings the gameplay out where we can see it. Sometimes, her scene partners can seem as outmatched as Beth’s own stunned opponents.

The central performance isn’t all there is to recommend about The Queen’s Gambit. The midcentury costumes and set design are understated yet eye-catching; never have the patterns on hotel wallpaper been an object of such intense interest. Thomas Brodie-Sangster, better known to most as Game of Thrones’ Jojen Reed, is also delightful as Beth’s flamboyant, knife-toting rival turned coach. (He’s prepping her for a faceoff against a Russian grandmaster who becomes Beth’s white whale.) But Taylor-Joy is unquestionably the main attraction, and given just how many close-ups his direction includes, Frank clearly knows it. The prodigy with a burden is a tale as old as time; you can practically mouth along to the scene when Shaibel tells Beth her gift comes with a cost. Fortunately, great actors can transcend cliché.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified the actress who plays young Beth.