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Review: 'The Queen's Gambit' makes all the right moves

Anya Taylor-Joy dazzles as an orphaned genius in Netflix chess drama

Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News

“The Queen’s Gambit” is many things. A coming of age story. A sports yarn. An examination of the line between genius and madness. The sort of old-fashioned drama no one makes anymore. Thoroughly entertaining.

But most importantly it’s a showcase for Anya Taylor-Joy, who’s portrayal of an orphaned, drug-loving chess genius is a revelation, a metamorphosis from socially awkward damaged oddball to tres chic proto-feminist world conqueror.

Anya Taylor-Joy in "The Queen's Gambit."

Taylor-Joy plays plays Beth Harmon. Orphaned after her brilliant but troubled mother dies in a car crash in the '50s, young Beth (well played by Isla Johnston) is sent to a Christian orphanage where all the kids are given tranquilizers daily. Beth loves her tranquilizers.

One day, at the age of nine, she finds the school’s custodian (Bill Camp) playing chess and is instantly enthralled. He teaches her the game; within days she’s beating him. Soon enough she’s playing all the members of the local chess club at once; she beats them all easily.

Then Beth gets adopted. But she hungers for chess, plotting out moves on the ceiling as she lies in bed. Eventually she manages to enter a chess tournament and she’s on her way.

Written and directed by Scott Frank, who also wrote and directed the superb Netflix limited series “Godless,” “The Queen’s Gambit” makes all kinds of unexpected moves. One of the nicest is the warm relationship Beth develops with her happily alcoholic adoptive mother, played marvelously by the film director Marielle Heller.

No knowledge of chess is needed to enjoy this show. It’s more about one person’s evolution, a classic long journey through friendships, love and personal struggles. But it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Taylor-Joy making that journey; she imbues Beth with a cool confidence and her exotic, big-eyed look has an oddball eroticism that’s hers alone. Chess has never sizzled like this.

'The Queen’s Gambit'

GRADE: B+

Netflix

Tom Long is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News.