From there, as Beth (now played by Anya Taylor-Joy) is adopted out of the orphanage and her prowess gradually gains public notice, “Gambit” proceeds straightforwardly through her teenage years, showing us how she becomes the glamorous but troubled chess pro of that opening scene. It follows the beats of a sports tale, like a classic Hollywood boxing film, but it’s also a coming-of-age story about a woman succeeding in a male-dominated world, and a restrained spin on an addiction saga, as Beth rises in the chess hierarchy on a steady diet of alcohol and downers.
Frank wraps it all up in a package that’s smart, smooth and snappy throughout, like finely tailored goods. The production has a canny combination of retro Rat Pack style, in its décors and music choices, with a creamy texture, in its performances and cinematography, that is reminiscent of another Netflix period piece, “The Crown.” (This connection is reinforced by the abundance of British actors playing the American roles, including Taylor-Joy and, as three mentors and competitors for Beth’s affection, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd and Harry Melling.)
“Gambit” never quite gets back to the charm of its Dickensian opening chapter, though, and it gets thinner as it goes along. Frank pulls off his combination of themes with a lot of old-Hollywood-style skill, but in the mix, neither the sports nor the personal-demons story line hits the levels of visceral excitement or emotional payoff that you might want. In the end, it was an admirable package that I wanted to love more than I did.
That may have had something to do with the construct around which the story is built. Beth finds a refuge in chess — it’s a predictable place where she feels safe and in control. And we’re shown why she needs a refuge, beginning with flashbacks to life with her brilliant, troubled biological mother (Chloe Pirrie) and continuing through her teen years with her alcoholic, depressed adoptive mom (an excellent Marielle Heller, who directed the female coming-of-age film “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”).
Both of those elements make sense. But the question that becomes the central theme of the series — whether Beth can overcome, or even survive, the obsessiveness that powers her success and the anger that’s reflected in her superaggressive style of play — is primarily melodramatic, a fact reflected in the show’s unsatisfying conclusion.