The Luzhin Defence

Friday April 20, 2001

     Maybe it's the iconography of the pieces or the intensity of the players, but for such a subtle, interior game, chess transfers very well to the screen. "Searching for Bobby Fischer" was one of the best films of 1993; a chess drama, "Dangerous Moves," won the best foreign-language Oscar in 1984; and the game itself has enlivened dramas from "The Thomas Crown Affair" to "The Seventh Seal."
     "The Luzhin Defence" is a worthy addition to that list though it's a bit more problematic, especially in its final act. Director Marleen Gorris ("Antonia's Line," "Mrs. Dalloway") does not ordinarily have a gift for subtlety, but she has done exceptionally well in selecting both her actors and her production people, and so this somber, difficult romance set against the backdrop of a chess tournament has a considerable amount going for it.
     Not the least of these strengths is having a scenario based on an early Russian-language novel (its title usually translated as "The Defence") by Vladimir Nabokov. As adapted by veteran BBC writer Peter Berry, the film co-stars John Turturro as the obsessed, possessed chess genius Luzhin and Emily Watson as Natalia, the woman he meets and falls in love with at a world chess championship in Northern Italy in 1929.
     As much a presence as the actors is the film's beautifully mounted setting, which includes a Lake Como villa that was the childhood home of director Luchino Visconti. Tony Burrough is the production designer, and as with films such as the Ian McKellen "Richard III" and the Gwyneth Paltrow "Great Expectations," Burrough (working with cinematographer Bernard Lutic and costumer designer Jany Temime) made his settings so satisfying that they're a reason to see the film all by themselves.
     All by himself for understandable reasons is eccentric grandmaster Luzhin. First glimpsed as a hand frantically scrawling chess moves in a tiny book, Luzhin is so not of this world that though a band is waiting to greet him when his train arrives at his Italian destination, he forgets to get off. Ill at ease in all social situations, harried by invisible demons, Luzhin is masterful with chess pieces but has absolutely no gift for people.
     Individuals like this are hardly new to film (in fact "The Luzhin Defence" plays like the dark side of "Shine"), but Turturro has the ability and the insight to make the chess player an individual, not a caricature. Also helping are extensive flashbacks that show what Luzhin cannot speak about: the troubled childhood that left him so emotionally scarred.
     Staying at the same Italian hotel as the tournament players is fellow Russian Natalia (Watson), vacationing with her mother, Vera (Geraldine James), a difficult woman of the "travel in Europe has become unbearable" variety.
     Though Vera wants to fix her daughter up with the very eligible Comte Jean de Stassard (Christopher Thompson), Natalia is not the social climber her mother is. She's intrigued by Luzhin, entranced by the very things that horrify her mother, like his complete lack of small talk, the intensity of his fascination with her, and how completely childlike his impulsive and emotional enthusiasms are.
     Soon enough, Natalia becomes the only one of Luzhin's interests to rank close to chess, an obsession that's consumed him so completely that, if asked, he can tell you exactly how long he's played the game: "9,263 days, four hours and five minutes."
     While Turturro's role as the manic genius is by nature the showier one, Watson's job of being persuasively intoxicated by this near-madman is much more difficult. Yet the actress, always a pleasure to watch, is wonderfully convincing as she sparks to Luzhin's eccentricities and becomes, as much as she can, the angel who watches over him.
     Naturally, there is a devil lurking nearby as well, and that is Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), a shadowy figure from Luzhin's past who clearly is up to no good and whose overtly melodramatic machinations are part of the film's difficulties.
     But "The Luzhin Defence" is about more than this tug of war. It also deals with the price of genius and, by implication, the toll of being an artist. Carefully made, involving and old-fashioned, the superior work it's inspired gives it an impact that lingers even when the endgame is over.


The Luzhin Defence, 2001. PG-13, for some sensuality and thematic elements. A Sony Pictures Classics Release. Director Marleen Gorris. Producers Caroline Wood, Stephen Evans, Louis Becker, Philippe Guez. Executive producer Jody Patton. Screenplay Peter Berry, based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov. Cinematographer Bernard Lutic. Editor Michael Reichwein. Costumes Jany Temime. Music Alexandre Desplat. Production design Tony Burrough. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes. John Turturro as Luzhin. Emily Watson as Natalia. Geraldine James as Vera. Stuart Wilson as Valentinov. Christopher Thompson as Stassard. Fabio Sartor as Turati.

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