If Anya Taylor-Joy is on the cusp of major stardom – with a “Mad Max” prequel in her future, and “The New Mutants” and “Emma” in her recent past – “The Queen’s Gambit” should advance her several moves ahead. The tale of a troubled chess prodigy, Taylor-Joy’s magnetic presence is enough reason to watch this handsome Netflix limited series, even if the seven-part production gets dragged out about three episodes too long.
As games go, chess doesn’t necessarily lend itself to cinematic exercises, with the 1993 movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer” among the rare exceptions. Adapting the novel by Walter Tevis, writer-producer-director Scott Frank (“Godless”) tries to remedy that by having the young Beth Harmon actually envision oversized pieces on the ceiling, a device that’s nifty for only a while.
As opening moves go, “The Queen’s Gambit” (a title that refers to chess, but also Beth’s rise in a male-dominated endeavor in the 1950s and ’60s) starts very, very slowly, beginning with the girl’s struggles at an orphanage, where she meets a kindly janitor (Bill Camp) who introduces her to the game.
Soon enough, she’s visiting the local high school, drubbing older members of the chess club, while sneakily popping pills in her spare time – offering the familiar juxtaposition of genius and chemical abuse.
To her surprise, Beth gets adopted, but the tension between her new parents shows, and pretty soon it’s just Beth and her new mom, Alma (Marielle Heller, the director of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”), who finally agrees to cultivate Beth’s gift as much out of necessity as benevolence. The prize money comes in handy, though Alma is a little too inclined to imbibe her share of the profits.
That all serves as a lengthy build-up to the meat of the story, as Beth goes about shocking guys at tournaments, before eventually embarking on a challenge truly worthy of her talents against the Russians, who approach chess with the kind of reverence and fervor Americans reserve for football.
With her big, piercing eyes and quiet intensity, Taylor-Joy makes Beth an utterly galvanizing figure. But the hurdles used to prolong her rise grow tedious and predictable, as if some unseen producer was prodding the anchorperson to fill dead air.
That doesn’t diminish her performance, but it does make “The Queen’s Gambit” a bit of a slog. The situation improves as a more grownup Beth enters into a series of relationships with the kind of brainy, awkward guys (including two played by former child actors Harry Melling and Thomas Brodie-Sangster) that one might find at chess tournaments. It’s also garnished with gorgeous period costumes and music, and when the Russians gossip about the American challenger behind her back, they compare her to Ann-Margret.
Visually the likeness is marginal, but in terms of commandeering the audience’s attention? Check. It’s just too bad “The Queen’s Gambit” didn’t approach its story with a little more of the urgency and ferocity that Beth brings to attacking the board.
“The Queen’s Gambit” premieres Oct. 23 on Netflix.