I like chess, I like ’60s fashion, and I like Anya Taylor-Joy. So I was a cheap date for The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix’s new seven-part miniseries streaming Friday. Taylor-Joy plays Beth Harmon, an outcast teen chess prodigy who becomes a grown-up celebrity chess casualty. Writer-director Scott Frank tracks her from a dingy orphanage cellar to globetrotting duels against Soviet supermen. It’s a stylish period piece with the rambling-years momentum of a John Irving novel. Luscious production design and a darkly fascinating lead performance duel against mawkish sentiment and a messy final act. It’s always fun to watch, even when it’s playing emotional checkers.
The series begins with Beth hungover and half-sunk into a bathtub. She’s in a palatial Paris hotel room; the place looks trashed. She gets dressed, notices someone in her bed, pops some pills, and races downstairs. Flashbulbs pop in her face. The whole world press is there, watching her play the Russian grandmaster Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski). They make a sharp contrast. He’s a stern middle-aged communist, somehow looming and invisible, followed everywhere by his KGB retinue of bodyguard-jailers. She’s glamorous, undone, afire, and lonely. It’s a great opening, rife with conflict: America, Russia, woman, man, youth, experience, druggy hedonism, rigid professionalism.
Alas, it is a prologue flash-forward, the hottest story idea of 2006. Queen’s Gambit kind of earns its backstep. The first episode circles to a younger Beth (Isla Johnston), shellshocked after her mother dies in a maybe suicidal car crash. She arrives at a midcentury Catholic orphanage. Those three words suggest nightmare possibilities, but here the abuse is all chemical. Orderlies stuff the kids full of state-mandated tranquilizers. Beth is getting high on Orphan’s Little Helper right as she discovers chess. Downstairs, somber janitor Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) plays solo matches on his ratty board. He starts teaching Beth the basics, and realizes he’s found a queen.
Every episode takes another step forward in Beth’s chess career, her coming of age, and her addiction spiral. It’s a familiar biopic trajectory, though the source material is a novel by Walter Tevis. Taylor-Joy is at her best playing Beth as a kid with a Vulcan-ish awkward confidence. She lets you see how the chessboard is an escape for a confused young person and a kind of religion, offering “an entire world of just 64 squares” to someone whose inner life is full of murky confusion.
Beth winds up adopted by the Wheatleys, a married couple whose heavily patterned house looks like the mausoleum of ’50s America. Dad Allston (Patrick Kennedy) is distantly busy. His wife, Alma (Marielle Heller), grieves a never-quite-explained loss by retreating into daylight drinking and perpetual television. When she realizes her adopted daughter has a lucrative chess habit, she sparks to life. Heller’s performance is astounding, a world-weary match for Taylor-Joy’s anxious curiosity. Alma becomes a supportive manager, yet there’s something overly vicarious in her interest. She’s being a good mother — and turning a teenager into her drinking