The Luzhin Defence

A headstrong heiress, an unstable chess master and an all-important tournament in an Italian resort town form the center of this oddly bloodless film — simultaneously a romance, a psychological thriller, a parable of addiction, a celebration of eccentricity and a heartfelt condemnation of bourgeois intolerance. It's hard to imagine Vladimir Nabokov,...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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A headstrong heiress, an unstable chess master and an all-important tournament in an Italian resort town form the center of this oddly bloodless film — simultaneously a romance, a psychological thriller, a parable of addiction, a celebration of eccentricity and a heartfelt condemnation of bourgeois intolerance. It's hard to imagine Vladimir Nabokov, from whose novel The Defense (1930) it's adapted, writing anything so schematic and naive; his slippery brilliance is notoriously brittle, wrapped up in sophisticated word games and diabolically fractured narrative structure. Dutch director Marleen Gorris's film, by contrast, is self-righteous, reductive and bluntly straightforward, despite liberal crosscutting between events unfolding in 1929 Italy and flashbacks to high-strung Russian grandmaster Aleksander Luzhin's (John Turturro) unhappy childhood. Luzhin was a child chess prodigy who embraced the game as a refuge from the boredom of school and the poisonous atmosphere of his parents' loveless marriage. Introduced to its mysteries by his vivacious Aunt Anna (Orla Brady) — with whom his father (Mark Tandy) is carrying on a blatant affair — young Luzhin is seduced by her vivid and richly characterized explanations of the pieces and moves; Anna makes chess seem as heroic and absorbing as medieval role-playing games appear to modern-day geeks. After his mother's death, Luzhin is taken under the wing of opportunistic schoolmaster Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), who promises to nurture the boy's talent but instead exploits and abandons him. The adult Luzhin is still a tournament-level player (albeit one who chokes under pressure), but he's incapable of conducting a conversation or managing his life on a day-to-day basis. That he should develop an intense crush on vacationing heiress Natalia (Emily Watson) is understandable. Why she reciprocates is, frankly, incomprehensible, though Watson does her best to suggest the steely impetuosity of an intelligent girl with a soft spot for wounded creatures, stifled by a social-climbing mother (Geraldine James) who's only interest is in seeing her daughter make an advantageous marriage. The film's dark heart is Valentinov's Mephistophelean scheming: He sets about sabotaging his former protégé's game for no apparent reason except sheer malice, and doesn't care if he has to drive Luzhin mad to insure that he loses. But Valentinov's machinations takes a back seat to the awkward and unengaging romance — Gorris beefed up Natalia's character without giving her substance — and what should be the film's devastating coda instead feels insipidly sentimental.

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  • Released: 2001
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Review: A headstrong heiress, an unstable chess master and an all-important tournament in an Italian resort town form the center of this oddly bloodless film — simultaneously a romance, a psychological thriller, a parable of addiction, a celebration of eccent… (more)

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