After her mother Alice (Chloe Pirrie) died in a car crash, 9 year-old Elizabeth Harmon (Isla Johnston) was brought to a school for orphans called the Methuen Home for Girls, run by head mistress Ms. Deardoff (Christiane Siedel). One day, while cleaning erasers in the basement, she chanced upon the janitor Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) playing chess with himself. She got curious and asked him to teach her how to play. This awakened an intense interest in her such that she could envision games being played on the ceiling as she lay in bed.
By her menarche, Beth (now played by Anya Taylor-Joy) joined her first open chess tournament and won over the defending champion Harry Beltik (Harry Melling). Later, her adoptive mother Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller) supported her to join various out-of-state chess competitions, later even out of the country (to Mexico and Paris) as the US representative. She was eventually invited to play in Moscow with top Russian grandmasters.
Her stay in Methuen introduced her to a magic green capsule which she felt enhanced her mind for chess, a habit perpetuated by Alma's own dependence on it to keep calm. Later, Beth also developed an addiction to alcohol. However, she had supportive friends like fellow orphan Jolene (Moses Ingram), her longtime crush Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), and chess frenemy Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sanger).
The mesmerizing stare of Anya Taylor-Joy's beautiful eyes were a major factor for this series' success. She did not need a major histrionic breakdown scene to convey the massive stress she is living under. Everything was so elegantly underplayed by Taylor-Joy, who could even create excitement even as she was just sitting down at a table pushing her pawns. For all the chess players, it was only up to their facial expressions to make the games thrilling for the audience watching. Taylor-Joy brought us through the whole gamut of these faces.
You would not think that a static game like chess could be developed into a compelling seven-episode minis-series, and here comes this one to prove that notion wrong. The way director Scott Frank told Beth's story (based on the 1983 fiction novel by Walter Tevis) was very dynamic and engaging despite the fact that that the excitement was mainly developed by the incisive film editing, dramatic musical score, clicking of timer clocks and play-by-play narrations by broadcasters.
The detailed production design and Beth's chic dresses and make-up completed our vicarious '60s immersion.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."