The Luzhin Defence
directed by Marleen Gorris
(Sony Pictures, 2000)

Alexandre Luzhin has been playing chess for 9,263 days, four hours and five minutes. Now he's ready for bigger game: Natalia Katkov, daughter of Russian socialite Vera Katkov.

Natalia (Emily Watson) and her mother (Geraldine James) are staying in the posh Italian resort where Luzhin (John Turturro) has arrived to play for the chess championship. But Luzhin finds more to defend himself against there than a couple of bishops and rooks.

The Luzhin Defence is an artistic triumph from the minute the credits dissolve into action.

A train speeds into a tunnel. A hand writes notes on a small pad. A mostly brass band warms up at the train station. A hand opens a chessboard. The train belches black smoke as it pulls into the station. The band meets the train. But there's no one there to meet the band. Luzhin has slipped quietly into the resort, wearing a suit so rumpled it might have made the trip itself.

That gets The Luzhin Defence off to a quirky start. The appearance of Turturro, one of Hollywood's chief quirks, as Luzhin only adds to the quirkiness. Luzhin's sudden proposal -- to a woman whose name he's neglected to ask -- clinches the deal.

But The Luzhin Defence is only one part quirky love story. It has a grim subtext as well, revealed in a series of flashbacks during which Luzhin recalls just how he, the child of a severely dysfunctional family, became a chess master.

The two worlds seem content to co-exist, at least until the arrival of Luzhin's former chess mentor, Valentinov (Stuart Wilson). The result is a collision of past and present that does more damage than most Italian military campaigns. That transforms The Luzhin Defence from a comedy of manners -- or lack thereof -- into a kind of compact epic, which is no surprise, given that it's based on a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian author best known for penning Lolita.

Like Professor Humbert Humbert in Lolita, Luzhin suffers from an obsession. But Luzhin's obsession is most dangerous to himself: If he doesn't stop playing chess, his doctors say, it will literally kill him.

As could not playing it.

The Luzhin Defence has just about everything you could ask for in a movie. It offers great roles to great performers, especially Watson, a woman who's mastered the art of being beautiful without being the least bit glamorous.

It has romance, tension, powerful images, sumptuous scenery, splendid acting, intriguing characters, a novel situation -- it has everything, you might say, but a satisfactory ending.

The sad fact is that while the images and acting remain powerful, the story they tell ultimately becomes both predictable and strained.

The last 10 minutes can't undo The Luzhin Defence. But neither do they wrap it up and send it home in style.

My advice: don't miss the first 100 minutes. The rest you can watch at your own risk.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]
Rambles: 23 March 2002

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