The Luzhin Defence

on April 20, 2001 by Chris Wiegand
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   Marleen Gorris's adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's little-known chess novel looks and sounds stunning, with some beautiful locations and a wonderful score by Alexandre Desplat. It is also imaginatively directed, yet fails to reach the tragic heights it strives for.

   Luzhin (John Turturro) is a disheveled and erratic Grand Master who arrives at a resort in the Italian Lakes to play in the chess world championships. Having visited the same resort many years earlier with his cold and distant parents, Luzhin is troubled during his stay by childhood memories. Among the guests at the resort is the beautiful Natalia (Emily Watson), who is hounded by her mother (Geraldine James) into the search for a perfect husband. Believing the handsome Stassard (Christopher Thompson) to be the perfect candidate, her mother is horrified when Natalia embarks on an unconventional relationship with Luzhin. As the final of the tournament approaches, Luzhin's aggrieved former mentor Valentinov (Stuart Wilson) arrives at the resort, plotting to put him off his game.

   Gorris' film benefits from John Turturro's tremendous performance as the tormented genius whose obsession--like Humbert Humbert's in "Lolita"--threatens to bring about his downfall. The recurring flashbacks to Luzhin's chess-fixated childhood effectively convey his instability and the disorientation he feels when he falls for Natalia. His complicated relationships with Natalia, his parents and his mentor are all presented in the film, but only one is explored to a satisfactory level--his relationship with the game itself. The movie suffers from some flawed stereotypes such as the villainous Valentinov and the society-obsessed mother, and these distract from what is essentially a dark story of humans using each other as pawns in a game. This is an ambitious feature with some original touches, but as with her 1997 adaptation of "Mrs. Dalloway," Gorris has been forced to sacrifice textual complexities when bringing the story to the screen. Starring John Turturro, Emily Watson, Geraldine James and Stuart Wilson. Directed by Marleen Gorris. Written by Peter Berry. Produced by Caroline Wood, Louis Becker, Stephan Evans and Phillipe Guez. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Drama/Romance. Not yet rated. Running time: 108 min

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