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The Luzhin Defence  

John Turturro...............Alexander Luzhin
Emily Watson................Natalia Katkov
Geraldine James.............Vera Katkov
Stuart Wilson...............Valentinov
Christopher Thompson........Count Jean Stassard
Fabio Sartor................Turati
Peter Blythe................Ilya
Orla Brady..................Aunt Anna
Mark Tandy..................Mr. Luzhin
Kelly Hunter................Mrs. Luzhin
Alexander Hunting...........Young Alexandre Luzhin
Alfredo Pea.................1st Chess Tournament Official
Fabio Pasquini..............2nd Chess Tournament Official
Luigi Petrucci..............Santucci
Carlo Greco.................Hotel Manager

Directed by: Marleen Gorris

Written by: Peter Berry

Based Upon the Novella "The Defense" by Vladimir Nabokov

Rated PG-13 for some sensuality and thematic elements

Running Time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

"You have no small talk. You don't ask a single question. You answer everything with a simple yes or no. What do you think about? What about me, am I ... beautiful?" she inquires, to which he immediately replies "Oh, yes."

It's his best trait, she tells him. His name is Alexander Luzhin (John Turturro), and he is a chess Grand Master. Like many geniuses, however, his mind occupies two different worlds, both of which he is tragically unable to handle.

"The Luzhin Defence" is based upon a novella by Vladimir Nabokov, best known for "Lolita". It was directed by Marleen Gorris ("Antonia's Line") and adapted to screenplay form by Peter Berry ("Goodbye My Love"). It takes place in Italy during the 1920's and tells the sad story of a brilliant boy whose need to escape the emotional pain of his parents' failing marriage drove him into the world of chess. An endeavor generally pursued by those who proudly display their feathers of knowledge, Luzhin instead uses it as an escape. It's a necessity for him, which explains why he doesn't play well under pressure. The evil Valentinov (Stuart Wilson) understands this too well. He used to tutor the young boy but cruelly ditched him in the midst of a losing streak and headed to America. Now he has resurfaced and in true cowardly fashion, attempts to sabotage Luzhin's efforts at winning the highly prestigious Italian Lakes Chess Competition.

Upon arriving in Italy for the tournament, Luzhin encounters another distraction, albeit a much more pleasant one. He unknowingly captures the attention of debutante Natalia Katkov (Emily Watson). Her mother (Geraldine James) doesn't approve of him, but Natalia is disarmed by his unflinching honesty and endearing innocence. She also sees the true brilliance lying just beneath his unusual demeanor. "We will be married in a couple weeks, after he wins the tournament." she tells her parents. "And if he doesn't win?" her father condescendingly asks. "We will be married anyway." Realizing her parents are concerned more for her social status, she then adds: "But he will."

John Turturro successfully plays Alexander Luzhin as both a man with a purpose, but also one with little awareness. A revealing scene has Luzhin being driven from the tournament by a hired hand of Valentinov. He feverishly works out a chess problem in his head, then exits the car only to realize he's been left stranded in the vast countryside.

While Turturro's performance will probably garner more attention, Emily Watson has the tougher acting assignment, as her role requires her to fall for a man whose mind occupies a separate plane. Having barely had a conversation with her, Luzhin runs up to her and declares, "I want you to be my wife. I implore you to agree." She doesn't dismiss the proposal, instead asking for time to consider it. Her love for him ultimately consists of respect, nurturing, pity, and protection. A lesser actor could've easily gotten lost in attempting to convey all those traits, yet Watson somehow pulls it off.

The film masterfully captures the elegance of its setting, thanks to the magnificently lavish production design by Tony Burrough ("Richard III", "Great Moments in Aviation"). Somehow though, the story never quite infiltrates the heart. Enough positive elements exist to give the movie a mild recommendation. At a crucial point in the story, a doctor informs Natalia that Alexander's love for chess is killing him, as to preserve his health, he should give the game up. That's not really the case. The tragedy of his life took place outside his love for chess. It was his inability to mentally exist in a world where chess was not a factor. The movie clearly understands this, although didn't seem to develop it enough. "The Luzhin Defence" is a decent film that is built upon the foundation of a much better one.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney

Critically Ill

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