First things first: “The Queen’s Gambit”, the latest limited series arrives on Netflix on October 23, is one of the best series this year. It’s a character study drama in its purest form that is very rare to be seen on TV in the past decade.

Adapted from Walter Tevis’s coming-of-age novel, creator/writer/director Scott Frank, the mastermind behind another outstanding Netflix miniseries “Godless”, layers the source materials with richness and thrill. Both leading and supporting cast deliver first-class performances; the visual language is astonishing; production values from the score, art direction, costumes, to editing are all marvelous. It’s a series with complex characters of addiction, obsession, trauma, and redemption. And don’t forget…it’s a series about chess!

“The Queen’s Gambit” opens with the car crash death of Beth Harmon’s (played by Isla Johnson as a child) mother in the late 1950s. Beth is then transferred to a Christian orphanage, where she meets another orphan Jolene (the excellent newcomer Moses Ingram) and develops an addiction to green tranquilizers. She also finds her passion for chess from a stuff named Mr. Shaibel (the great Bill Camp) who teaches her the rules of chess and quickly finds out she’s a prodigy. While Beth is obsessed with the game even before she knows what chess is about, she spends countless nights staring at the ceiling and playing the game with her imagination.

When Beth is 15 (now played by the acting prodigy Anya Taylor-Joy), she is adopted by a woman named Alma Wheatley (played by the talented director Marielle Heller of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”, here proves her acting is as wonderful as her directing). Alma is a housewife who chose marriage over career, now feeding her depression with alcohol and drugs. While Beth learns to do the same, it’s also the same time when Beth discovers she has the potential to be one of the greatest chess masters in the world. Frank’s storytelling focuses very less on if she can be the world champion, but more on whether she’ll find peace and happiness inside her chaotic mind.

There’re several male characters, performed by actors including Harry Melling, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, and Jacobs Fortune-Lloyd, that play important roles during Beth’s journey at some points as rivals, friends, and lovers. However, “The Queen’s Gambit” is not really about these gentlemen. The series centers our heroine with her isolation, where we see the vulnerable Beth closes-up her mind and pushes others away. Even when she becomes the world-leading chess player and surrounded by press and people, she is still alone. It’s heartbreaking to see her true addiction is chess, while alcohol and pills are only served as the catalyst.

And we need to talk about the chess-playing! I barely know about chess, still, watching these senses makes my heart beat and sweat like hell. The sequences are electrifying and thrilling. They will hold your breath, tase you with shocking twists, and even make you shed tears. The games bring Beth energy yet consumed her at the same time. Taylor-Joy’s performance is phenomenal by making her character come to life on the screen. Her emotions and thoughts are spoken through her eyes, and her body language tells you the different stages she’s at. She’s fighting for winning the game while finding the inner peace; she’s looking for a broader purpose of life while gazing at the chessboard. The shining star from “The VVitch”, “Spilt”, “Thoroughbreds” and this year “Emma” has delivered one of the most profound performances in her career, watching Taylor-Joy eye-arresting acting is pure beauty.

Featuring world-class writing, directing, acting, and technical crafts, the series is a triumph on every level. The story is straightforward yet intense with an extremely clear direction. In many ways, “The Queen’s Gambit” reminds us of how great a character-driven prestige drama used to be, showing us something called “entertainment” that we almost forget its true nature in the past few years.

GRADE: A-

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  • Distributor: Netflix
  • Production: Flitcraft, Wonderful Films, and Netflix
  • Creator: Scott Frank, Scott Allan, and Allan Scott
  • Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Marielle Heller, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Harry Melling, Marcin Dorocinski, Moses Ingram, and Bill Camp
  • All 7 episodes available on Netflix Oct. 23, 2020

Read the review in Chinese

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