Writer-director Scott Frank had only written and directed one film of note before tackling this seven-part Netflix series - the 2007 movie "The Lookout." But among the great scripts he's turned out are "Out of Sight," "Minority Report," and "Logan." His script for "The Queen's Gambit" comes from the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, another writer who doesn't like to repeat himself. His previous books include "The Hustler" and "The Man Who Fell to Earth."
The result in this meeting of minds between Frank and the late Tevis (he died in 1984) is a film about a young, anxiety-ridden, tranquilizer-addicted, alcoholic chess prodigy who finds herself on track to becoming a world champion player. It's engrossing and exciting, it's an emotional thriller, it's an elegant, beautifully acted piece of filmmaking, and you don't have to know anything about chess to get wrapped up in it.
The protagonist is Beth, played by a few different actresses at different ages - one when she's orphaned, another as she grows up in the orphanage, a third just before she's adopted and starts a new life. It's the third, the young adult Beth, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who is at the center of the series. And from the time she takes over the part, Taylor-Joy is in pretty much every scene, doing yeoman's work creating the character and letting us see her believably develop.
It's 1959. Traumatic events lead 8-year-old Beth to her new home at the orphanage where all the girls are given a daily dose of "magic vitamins" - an orange and brown pill "for your body" and a green one "for your disposition." Those green ones are called Librium.
Beth is a bright girl, and one of her teachers, sensing she's ahead of the other students, relieves Beth of her boredom by letting her leave the classroom to clap erasers in the basement. It's there that she discovers the custodian, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), sitting alone at a chessboard, working out games. Watching silently, not comprehending what she's seeing, she becomes fascinated by the board and the pieces.
Beth: "Will you teach me?"
Mr. Shaibel: "No, I don't play strangers." Then, later: "Girls do not play chess."
But in bed, she can't stop thinking about the game, staring at the ceiling and visualizing pieces and the way Mr. Shaibel moves them. So, she keeps visiting him, keeps taking it all in, until one day he says, "Let's play a game." In due time, after endless advice that she laps up, he says, "You're astounding!"
Another plus for Beth at the orphanage is the meeting of Jolene, a rebellious young girl who will become her confidant and first true friend. But a minus is Beth's growing dependence on those green pills, which relax her enough to help with her visualizations, but also turn her into an addict. And that's only the first episode!
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The rest of the series follows Beth on her journey from that orphanage basement to international chess tournaments. She's adopted by sad, emotionally troubled Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller) and her uncaring husband. She transforms, without realizing it, from a plain Jane of a girl to a beautiful young woman. She never takes her mind off chess long enough to notice that young men are starting to look at her. She and her adopted mom forge a loose friendship that initially benefits each of them, and eventually turns real.
The story offers more than a passing mention of the Cold War, with the chess games leading up to a showdown between intuitive American champ Beth and by-the-book Russian champ Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski) in 1968.
"The Queen's Gambit"
Written and directed by Scott Frank
With Anya Taylor-Joy, Marielle Heller, Thomas Brodie-Sangstser, Bill Camp
There's also plenty of time spent on the men in her life - the three main ones being chess master Benny (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), chess teacher Harry (Harry Melling), and possible love interest Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd).
A few of the chess-playing scenes get repetitive, and some trimming could have made this a six-part series. But while that would have narrowed the time, it also would have taken away some of its delicious tension.
For those doubters who still fear that not knowing the game will prevent them from enjoying this, here's chess in a nutshell: You either have to make your opponent quit or capture their king. There's your endgame.
"The Queen's Gambit" premieres on Netflix on Oct. 23.
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