Luzhin Defence, The (UK, 2000) ** 3/4
Directed by Marleen Gorris. Written by Peter Berry, based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov. Photography, Bernard Lutic. Editing, Michaël Reichwein. Production design, Tony Burrough. Music, Alexandre Desplat. Cast: John Turturro (Luzhin), Emily Watson (Natalia), Geraldine James (Vera), Stuart Wilson (Valentinov), Christopher Thompson (Stassard), Fabio Sartor (Turati) and Alexander Hunting (young Luzhin). A Sony Pictures Classics release. 106 minutes. PG-13
A major change from suffocating summer dreck-pictures, this visually beautiful adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov is well worth seeing in spite of my reservations.
Very few films are about or around chess. There was Raymond Bernard's 1927 French silent "The Chess Player," a "historical" fantasy of royalty and a mechanical chessman. In 1938 it was remade, also in France by Jean Greville class A performers Francoise Rosay and the German-born Conrad Veidt who played Major Heinrich Strasser in "Casablanca" and died the following year at age 50 from a heart attack. The 1993 thriller "Knight Moves" was bad, but also in 1993 came the excellent, prize-winning "Searching for Bobby Fischer" by writer-director (his directorial debut) Steven Zaillian. And that same year came "Schindler's List" scripted by Zaillian. He won one of that movie's 7 Oscars.
There's a little-known but wonderful German TV-film "Black and White Like Nights and Days." (1978) where scientific genius Bruno Ganz becomes a chess champion whose obsession leads him to madness. Its director Wolfgang Petersen had a prolific record of works for German television. This was his last one of that kind as he went on to the classic movie-movie "Das Boot." which brought him fame and made him a Hollywood biggie.
"The Luzhin Defence" also combines chess with madness. John Turturro plays Alexander (Sasha) Luzhin, a Russian-born grand master who goes to a huge villa by Northern Italy's Lake Como for a world championship chess tournament. He's a total weirdo, unkempt, inarticulate (his speech comes out by the eye-dropper), solitary, out of touch with everything but chess, his single fixation. But then he meets some visiting wealthy Russian émigrés, Natalia and her mother Vera. The latter, ostensibly vacationing, is husband-hunting for her daughter.
Between Luzhin and Natalia it is love at first sight for him, at second sight for her. She accepts Alexander's instant and bizarre proposal of marriage. Improbabilities are underlined by their lightning speed of those events, the lack of contact in this odd couple, the chic of the classy woman, the drabness of the man, the unexplored backgrounds of Natalia's family and the vagueness of her relationship with her progenitors.
The movie goes against the Hollywood canon of only having "beautiful people" meet. When charmer Cary Grant, 50, encounters ravishing Grace Kelly, 26, in "To Catch a Thief." it is delicious. But Turturro, who looks like someone who once had Bell's Palsy, and Watson? She is elegant and cute but no Venus. In looks, her mother (Geraldine James, now 50, famously familiar from the 1984 miniseries "The Jewel in the Crown") steals the show from Emily Watson.
(In praise of older women, someone ought to make a list of movies in which mature moms outshine their daughters),
The story keeps your attention yet gets increasingly unlikely. Luzhin is eminently unsexy. Sweet Natalia is not about to ignite any male fires. But there is a sex sequence of mixed metaphors. The engaged couple making love in bed alternate its many rapid shots of sex movements with shots of chess moves. Come, come...
Flashbacks to Alexander as a child in St. Petersburg are used profusely, unexpectedly and often arbitrarily, in order to explain his troubled family life --which we are forced to surmise led partly to his peculiarities; his becoming a chess genius (this is treated with vagueness); and to a flashback of his adulthood. The latter comes in when, during the tournament, the older, bearded Valentino appears. He is the man who took young Alexander in charge, became his mentor, exploited him, and dropped him suddenly when he decided that Sasha was no longer useful to him.
There is a flashback scene of Devil incarnate Valentino in a carriage, suddenly and brutally abandoning the younger man. Sasha cries out "What town is this?" The point made is the artist or chess-player's unwordliness, but too much is too much.So is the other point, of Luzhin's mathematical-machine brain, when, in answer to Natalia's "How long have you been playing chess?" he replies "9,263 days, 4 hours and 5 minutes." Come now!
More credible is an illustration of Luzhin's living on another planet. After the villainous Valentino reappears Sasha passively accepts all of that traitor's lies and phony friendship. Madness has many faces, and Luzhin is sinking fast.
Period Hollywood movies always supply audiences with explanations (albeit simplistic) of historical backgrounds. This film overdoes the opposite. I saw it with my friend Elijah Danielson who is a car and history buff. We could not pinpoint the exact time even though fashions and automobiles can be good clues. Now I know that the year was 1929--because that's what the pressbook says.
Equally unconvincing is the Russianness of the émigré characters (the daughter, the mother, the father). Turturro does not speak enough to show his Americanism, but the family are quite British and have no Russian accents. By 1929 the Czar's family had been killed by the Bolshevik's a dozen years ago, while emigration by White Russians was going strong. The higher classes all spoke excellent French, which would be credible in a French-language version of this movie. But it is in English.
This was not an easy adaptation to do. Good novels, with their thoughts, interior monologues and such, seldom make good films, or else must openly stress that they are "based on" variants, as here. This ought to disarm unfair comparisons with the far more complex story by Nabokov..
In Italy, Mussolini had been in power since 1922. The presence of Fascist Blackshirts is visible but little is made of it. Since the film varies from he book, it might have injected a political note by paralleling --even fleetingly--the political madness of Fascism and the obsession of Luzhin.
The performance of the obsessed Luzhin adds another plus to the un-pigeon-holeable Turturro who, in a panoply of odd or different roles has taken chances that other actors do not. There a holes in the scenario, but Turturro survives them.
Among the movie's technical virtues is the nice underlining of physical, period details and the very eye-pleasing visuals of the gorgeous settings which include the sumptuous villa by Lake Como. This is actually where the great film and stage director Luchino Visconti ("Ossesione," "Senso," "Rocco and his Brothers," "Death in Venice," "The Leopard" etc..) spent his childhood years. Visconti bore one of the noblest names of Italy's aristocracy yet was a committed leftist.
The resplendent interiors were shot in Hungary. Photography and music are first-rate.