In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, lead star of Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit,” Anya Taylor-Joy, said her initial reaction when writer and director Scott Frank mentioned the part and she read Walter Tevis’ novel of the same name: “I’m not a runner, but I ran to that meeting.”
Taylor-Joy was overwhelmed with excitement and confidence to do the role justice, and it’s this deep-seated commitment that shines through in Netflix’s new chess mini-series released this October.
In the series, we follow the story of chess prodigy Beth Harmon (played by Isla Johnston, then Taylor-Joy), a young girl who loses her mother in a car crash and is sent to an orphanage. There, she discovers a passion for chess in the basement games she sneaks away to play with the janitor and a dangerous addiction to the tranquilizers children are given before being outlawed by the state. Once Beth is adopted at 15 by the Wheatleys, these two drives propel her into the competitive chess scene.
Harmon is a complicated protagonist, always on the edge of simultaneously discovering and losing herself, and it’s Taylor-Joy’s finesse that manages to stay balanced on the tightrope. The camera frequently fills the frame with her expressions, wringing tension out of her commanding gaze as she studies the board during matches.
In a role so dependent on the severity of Beth’s isolation, the success of the portrayal hinges entirely on the actor’s ability to feel everything internally while being silently expressive. It’s the kind of honesty you would only find in someone dancing alone unobserved, and Taylor-Joy consistently performs this quality like a mirror of her deepest insecurities.
Though Taylor-Joy runs the show, it would be a mistake to not credit much of the brilliantly assembled cast and crew.
Marielle Heller gives a mesmerizing performance as Beth’s adoptive mother, a broken woman who acts as her daughter’s yang with the heartbreaking display of her emotional devastation. A criminally underused Moses Ingram shines as Beth’s chosen sister Jolene, producing some of the show’s sweetest and most palpable moments.
Costume designer Gabriele Binder, as well as hair and makeup designer Daniel Parker, deserve equal praise for their ability not just to capture the 1960s, but use these elements as another form of unspoken truths about our protagonist.
The swollen outline of Harmon’s eyeliner accents her lows, and her black-and-white dress, patterned like stretched chess squares, showcase the confidence she has to dominate the board. Harmon wears her skills and screw-ups like badges of honor, and we love her at her worst for it: a mentality that also unfortunately applies at the show's glaring faults.
The breakneck pace ultimately leads to an ending all too neat. The intricate relationships established between Beth and the supporting cast boil down to a single, unsurprising theme. Furthermore, the story’s points on race and gender are left shallowly explored with the absence of Jolene.
Still, “The Queen’s Gambit” has a tremendous heart, and the awards-worthy performance from Taylor-Joy coupled with the restless energy of a peak sports drama makes this one of the year’s best television series.