There’s a set of the jaw, a mercenary narrowing of the eyes in Anya Taylor-Joy that hisses “relentless.” It’s reminiscent of Natalie Dormer’s ravenous gaze, although less sexual.
She can soften it a little, as she did in “Emma.” But it’s always there, in “Thoroughbreds” or “Peaky Blinders” and it’s what makes the limited series “The Queen’s Gambit” seem tailor-made (sorry) for her.
In this adaptation of the late Walter Tevis’s novel (his “The Hustler” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth” were also made into films), she’s a chess prodigy, an “intuitive” champion utterly myopic about the world she lives in and the life she’s eschewing to keep her eyes on the prize, and the board.
Family may fail her — her mad mathematician mother (Chloe Pirrie) may have even expected to end Beth’s life the day her childhood ended, when her mother died in a Kentucky car crash that Beth survived. And the couple that eventually adopts her (Marielle Heller and Patrick Kennedy) don’t support her passion, and can’t even stay together for her sake.
Her one friend childhood friend at the orphanage (Moses Ingram) might let her down. And the chess players she runs into, afoul of and tumbles into bed with will never be up to snuff.
Beth Harmon won’t let any of them stand in her way, and Taylor-Joy lets us see the unworldly, naive but heartless Beth calculate the costs-to-benefits transaction that every relationship in her life represents. She’s even relentless in her vices, the ones that either aid her rise, or point to its obvious pitfalls — booze, pills.
Scott Frank’s series takes us from young Beth (Isla Johnson) picking up the game from the custodian (Bill Camp) at Methuen Hall, and picking up a lifelong tranquilizer habit from a facility that in the ’50s and ’60s drugged the kids in its charge.
The older Beth remembers falling in love with “the board, all the world in just 64 squares.” Alone in the world, with chess “I feel safe. I can control it. I can dominate it.”
She isn’t self-aware enough to understand the instability that comes with the brain one has to have to conquer this game. Her mathematically-published mother should be at least a cautionary lesson for her — in literary (and dramatic) cliche terms. But no.
Her inexorable march into and through the man’s world of 1960s chess takes up much of “The Queen’s Gambit.” Win after win, men (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, Harry Melling, others) taking her lightly because she’s learned the game without knowing about “ratings,” rankings and tournament etiquette and protocols.
Movies on the subject have covered covered the mind-crushing mania that this ancient and inscrutable game generates (again, cliched) — “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” “Pawn Sacrifice”). “Gambit” goes deeper into the chess, especially when Beth finds a foe worthy of her talent (Thomas Brodie-Sangster of the “Maze Runner” movies).
But that “relentless” march quality means the series telegraphs its chapters, even as it bogs down in the late ’60s, tourneys, “Russians,” crises of confidence and every predictable drink-Ripple-from-the-bottle pitfall along the way. That makes it drag, not always, but more than you’d like.
There’s just a little humor, much of it of the female empowerment variety. And creator-director )and writer of two episodes) Frank, a wonderful screenwriter (“Out of Sight,” “Logan,””The Lookout”) allows the odd perfectly-composed shot to call attention to itself.
Some of the co-stars (Camp) seem shortchanged, while Heller, an actress, writer and director (“Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) and Brodie-Sangster at least get to make enriching impressions and contributions.
But this is Taylor-Joy’s quest and march, and we see Beth’s monomania mature her as an actress over seven episodes. She marches into the frame, lets us see the girl acquiring a poker-face and developing killer instinct and gamesmanship.
And she sashays out of the frame, dancing by herself (’60s pop) with regret never furrowing her brow, even in that rare moment when she figures out what “longing” feels like. First scene to last, she makes this a character with her nose to the ground as she sniffs out weakness and vulnerabilities, in all the men she faces off with, and in herself.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, sex, alcohol and drug abuse, smoking, profanity
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Bill Camp, Marielle Heller, Moses Ingram, Thomas Brodie-Sangster
Credits: Created and directed by Scott Frank, based on a novel by Walter Tevis. A Netflix release.
Running time: Seven episodes @ 49-59 minutes each