The Reel Review
Orphaned at the age of six, shy Beth Harmon lives an unremarkable life at an orphanage in Kentucky – until she plays her first game of chess. From there, the precocious child prodigy becomes one of the world’s greatest chess players, while juggling personal trauma and an addiction to pills and booze, in this Netflix miniseries based on the 1983 fiction novel by Walter Tevis.
Who knew chess could be so sexy… and so darn exciting! Writer/director Scott Frank (whose writing credits include Logan and the doggy tearjerker Marley & Me) has assembled a master class in storytelling – a riveting personal drama with eye popping clothing and set design that captures life in 1960s America unlike anything currently on television. The visuals are breathtaking. And Anya Taylor-Joy is equally magnificent as the chess master pursuing her passion while unpacking a lifetime of personal trauma, in what is almost certain to be an Emmy award-winning performance.
The rest of the cast is also top notch. Among the standouts: Isla Johnston as a young Beth, Bill Camp (Dark Waters, The Outsider) as the stoic janitor and chess mentor Mr. Shaibel, Moses Ingram as her best friend Jolene, director Marielle Heller (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Can You Ever Forgive Me?) in a turn in front of the camera as Beth’s alcoholic adoptive mother and Harry Melling (the Harry Potter films, The Devil All the Time) as chess foe-turned-friend Harry Beltik.
In addition to the surprisingly suspenseful chess play, the story of the chess prodigy has a poignant, intimate genuineness to it, without feeling sappy. Excellent visual effects and clever camerawork add even more emotion to the fascination of watching a genius in her element.
• Chess coach Bruce Pandolfini and former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov designed every game in the seven episode miniseries to ensure complete accuracy. “Essentially I learned all the sequences like dances,” says star Anya Taylor-Joy, “and because I’m a dancer, that was helpful in terms of remembering how everything worked out.”
• In the miniseries, the janitor, Mr. Shaibel gives a young Beth a book titled “Modern Chess Openings.” MCO, as it is commonly called, has seen 15 editions since it was first published in 1911.
• Anya Taylor-Joy, Thomas Bodie-Sangster (Benny Watts) and Harry Melling (Harry Beltik) all say they had very little knowledge about chess prior to filming the miniseries.