The Luzhin Defence

"Weak"

The Luzhin Defence Review


John Turturro is all about idiosyncrasies in "The Luzhin Defence," an adaptation of a Vladimir Nobokov novel in which the actor plays a brilliant 1920s chess grand master whose strict, sometimes cruel upbringing has left him an erratic social misfit.

Deeply submerged in his character, he walks like he's forever in the middle of trying to prevent a stumble. Reflected in his busy eyes is the fact that his mind is compulsively darting and dashing about. And he's a man who lacks certain social graces -- like getting a girl's name before he proposes marriage to her.

Visiting a lakeside resort chateau in northern Italy for a championship chess tournament, Alexander Luzhin (Turturro) finds himself distracted by a beautiful Russian heiress named Natalia (Emily Watson), on holiday with her persnickety bluenosed parents. Unable to get her out of his mind after one brief encounter and not adept at social interaction, Luzhin approaches her out of the blue, while she's in the middle of playing tennis, to burst out his proposal.

Natalia is not as taken aback as one might think -- in part because she's apparently drawn to eccentrics (she practically sought him out for their first encounter), in part because his unhinged intelligence intrigues her, and perhaps in part because her parents will most certainly disapprove.

It does seem odd that a unmarried woman of Watson's age (34) would still be subject to such scrutiny and interference by her parents, even in 1929 -- and it's just this kind of naggingly questionable plot point that begins to unravel the tragic romance on which they embark.

Directed by Marleen Gorris ("Mrs. Dalloway," "Antonia's Line"), "The Luzhin Defence" is a grand, emotionally-charged period piece that appears to have everything going for it -- talented leads in dramatic performances, prestigious source material (the novel was one of Nobokov's pre-"Lolita" Russian language works), a rich sense of time and place, and a striking visual beauty. But the story's realization seems to be missing some important details.

The film spends a lot of time exploring Luzhin's childhood in Russia -- his mother's suicide relating to his father's adulterous relationship with his aunt, his stifled genius, his school truancy spent playing chess in local cafes, the maleficent mentor Valentinov (Stuart Wilson) who took Luzhin under his wing in order to exploit his gift, then dumped him unceremoniously when the boy's playing hit a slump.

But Natalia's psyche goes largely unexplored, leaving one to wonder exactly why she prefers the wildly unstable and disheveled Luzhin to a dashing Italian friend and suitor (Christopher Thompson) who pursues her as well.

The frequent interludes of the actual chess matches are always brief but quite effective, deftly portraying the pressure and intensity of championship chess while avoiding the uncinematic (and confusing) details of the actual strategy involved.

But the plot soon pivots on the almost cartoonish villainy of Valentinov who, after abandoning him 20 years before, turns up at this tournament to deliberately and methodically wreck Luzhin's concentration out of some inexplicably ruthless desire to see him fail.

A melodrama of borderline madness follows as Luzhin suffers a breakdown that tests his commitment to the game and to Natalia.

"The Luzhin Defence" is a passionately crafted picture, but it's hard to connect with some significant characters because their motivations go largely unexplored. Watson fleshes out Natalia admirably, but she doesn't have a whole lot to work with since her only significant character traits seem to be kindness and a less discriminatory attitude than her snooty parents. Her mother (Geraldine James) is almost too haughty to be believed, arrogantly pushing aside other guests at the resort's front desk and commenting that she stayed in her cabin on the train from home because "I can't believe the types they let roam free."

When Natalia introduces Luzhin to her, then leaves them alone, you can't help but wonder what she could be thinking. In fact, the parents almost have to be wholly unsympathetic for the audience to not see that they might have a point about this weird man not being right for their daughter.

Even Turturro seems a little too wrapped up in the mannerisms of his character at times. He never lacks credibility, but as a viewer you are always acutely aware that he is method acting with a capital "M."

"The Luzhin Defence" may capture some Masterpiece Theatre hearts, but too many questions and/or doubts linger in the air of most scenes to really get caught up in it.



The Luzhin Defence

Facts and Figures

Run time: 109 mins

In Theaters: Friday 8th September 2000

Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 58%
Fresh: 41 Rotten: 30

IMDB: 7.0 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director:

Starring: as Aleksandr Ivanovich 'Sascha' Luzhin, as Natalia Katkov, as Vera, Natalia's Mother

Contactmusic


Links



Advertisement

New Movies

Trumbo Movie Review

Trumbo Movie Review

An entertaining film about sobering true events, this is the story of notorious screenwriter Dalton...

Goosebumps Movie Review

Goosebumps Movie Review

Mixing the action, comedy and horror from novelist R.L. Stein's books into a family-friendly package,...

Dad's Army Movie Review

Dad's Army Movie Review

The beloved 1970s British sit-com gets the big screen treatment, although there's been very little...

Spotlight Movie Review

Spotlight Movie Review

This film demonstrates that you don't need guns to make an exciting thriller. Based on...

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi Movie Review

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi Movie Review

Not the subtlest director working in Hollywood, Michael Bay brings his surging machismo to this...

Dirty Grandpa Movie Review

Dirty Grandpa Movie Review

There's nothing clever about this deliberately rude and vulgar comedy, but certain audiences will find...

The Big Short Movie Review

The Big Short Movie Review

Smart and snappy, this comedy is one of the scariest films of the year, using...

Advertisement
The 5th Wave Movie Review

The 5th Wave Movie Review

Also based on the first in a trilogy of post-apocalyptic teen novels, this thriller feels...

Ride Along 2 Movie Review

Ride Along 2 Movie Review

Ice Cube and Kevin Hart reteam for a sequel no one really asked for, following...

Room Movie Review

Room Movie Review

One of the most extraordinary films of the year, this drama cleverly weaves in events...

Creed Movie Review

Creed Movie Review

While this film is basically Rocky VII, it's also much more than that, and perhaps...

A Perfect Day Movie Review

A Perfect Day Movie Review

An irreverent comedy in the style of the original M.A.S.H., this wartime romp takes an...

Partisan Movie Review

Partisan Movie Review

With his feature debut, young Australian filmmaker Ariel Kleiman tells a creepy story about a...

The Revenant Movie Review

The Revenant Movie Review

A wrenching saga of survival and revenge, Alejandro G. Inarritu's new epic is just as...

The Hateful Eight Movie Review

The Hateful Eight Movie Review

Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker who simply can't be ignored, especially when he lobs a...

Advertisement
Artists
Actors
    Filmmakers
      Artists
      Bands
        Musicians
          Artists
          Celebrities
             
              Artists
              Interviews
                musicians & bands in the news
                  actors & filmmakers in the news
                    celebrities in the news

                      Go Back in Time using our News archive to see what happened on a particular day in the past.