The Luzhin Defence Movie Review

Early on in the period drama The Luzhin Defence, Emily Watson's Natalia proclaims that she wants something different, and that's just what we get through most of this adaptation, based on Vladimir Nabokov's novel of chess and madness. But as acclaimed director Marleen Gorris (Mrs. Dalloway) takes us toward the vital final act, that sense of originality seems to fade.

Luckily, we are saved throughout by Watson's performance. As a woman vacationing with her pesky mother in 1920s Italy, she stumbles upon eccentric, pained, chess genius Alexander Luzhin, or more accurately, he stumbles upon her. Luzhin, played by a solid and risk-taking John Turturro, is disheveled and awkward, the kind of absent-minded obsessive that draws stares of both scorn and jealousy. Watson and Turturro, both at the top of their talents, create a sort of Romeo and Juliet -- he's reckless and unkempt, she's proper and well-mannered.

Both actors tell most of the inner story with their faces, filling the screen with hope, confusion, and understanding. As Turturro delivers his clipped one-syllable answers, and Watson brings a fuller, more human bloom to their relationship, we may be cynical of their union, but not necessarily doubtful. They sell it with a stare or a blink at just the right moment.

And Gorris knows just when to take advantage of that skill, especially with well-timed reaction shots of Watson (who, by the way, has been nothing short of heartbreaking in nearly every film in which she's appeared). Gorris, working from Peter Berry's screenplay, develops some well-formed parallels between Luzhin's present situation and his problematic childhood. There's the occasional evocative edit, but she also does it with design, wardrobe, and color.

We're kept intrigued through the first hour-plus: the strangeness of the master chess champion, the reasons for Natalia loving him, his unique idea of courting, his participation in a world championship tournament. But as we're led toward the finale, the plot gets simplistic, and the actors seem unsure of what to do with it. It seems as if the excitement of the unexpected was a strong motivator, perhaps leading to varied interpretations. That seems lost toward the couple's final resolution.

Gorris seems to lose some motivation as well, treating some of the larger dramatic moments with too heavy a hand -- setting the camera at an angle needlessly, trumpeting the "important" musical theme, giving too much to the drama of it all (Luzhin seeing visions from his childhood during a stressful match is especially silly).

But when she's smart enough to tone it down, which is most of the film, the visuals can be satisfying. One of recurring interest is a life-sized chess game, being played at the resort where the action takes place. As guests strain to lift huge playing pieces, it's obvious that the smaller version of the game is just as taxing to Luzhin and Natalia. Turturro and Watson carry that through the film successfully, but the endgame is far from checkmate.

Pawn advances.


Comments

The Luzhin Defence Rating

" Good "

Rating: PG-13, 2001

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