(director: Marleen Gorris; screenwriters: Peter Berry/based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov; cinematographer: Bernard Lutic; editor: Michael Reichwein; cast: John Turturro (Luzhin), Emily Watson (Natalia), Geraldine James (mother of Natalia, Vera), Stuart Wilson (teacher, Valentinov), Christopher Thompson (Jean De Stassard), Fabio Sartor (Turati), Mark Tandy (Luzhin’s father), Kelly Hunter (Luzhin’s mother), Alexander Hunting (young Luzhin), Orla Brady (Luzhin’s aunt); Runtime: 108; Sony Pictures Classics/Renaissance; 2000-U. K./ France)
“The Luzhin Defence was check mated at the opening bell.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Luzhin Defence was a dull, middle-brow art-house film about an eccentric Russian-born Grand Master chess champion approaching his biggest match ever and making things more complicated by falling in love for the first time. It is set in 1929.

The story was emotionally flat and the contrived ending was ludicrous (this was not the same ending in the novel). It is hard to find what Dutch feminist filmmaker Marleen Gorris’ (A Question of Silence/Antonia’s Line/Mrs. Dalloway) tried to say in this Merchant-Ivory styled literary film. It was a drawn out glossy affair stuffed with empty gestures to the arts, and I could never figure out what John Turturro was trying to do with his role as the chess genius. He is both a social misfit and someone who is mentally unstable, and resorts to putting on an over-the-edge performance which misses any subtlety in the genius chess champion’s character. He plays Alexander Luzhin, the child prodigy, who comes to a lush northern Italian villa in Lake Como to compete for the World Chess Championship against arch rival Turati (Sartor).

There just never seemed to be any point or excitement to this film, as adapted by screenwriter Peter Berry from Vladimir Nabokov’s ironic novel. This film is devoid of Nabkov’s wit and irony, it was concerned only with showing a pretty face, some pretty scenery to look at, and eschewing any controversy. The film was devoid of any Fascist presence, even though Mussolini had come to power in the early part of the 1920s, so even the historical period background is distorted.

Luzhin has been addicted to chess since 10, and it is the only thing he likes and can do well. He has immersed himself totally in chess, supposedly at risk to his health. In continual flashbacks we see what his despondent childhood was like, as he is raised in a socially upstart bourgeois household in Russia by overbearing parents who sent him to the best boarding school possible and expected him to climb the social ladder to success. It is disappointing to them that after going through a lot of trouble to get him accepted there, that he’s asked to leave because of poor schoolwork. When his father (Tandy) realizes he’s good at chess he gets him out of his hair by turning him over to a slimy chess teacher, Valentinov (Wilson), who exploits him for as much winnings as he can and when Luzhin loses an important match he thinks the kid is not of a champion caliber, so he dumps him unceremoniously in a city that’s strange to Luzhin. Luzhin is childlike and can’t function in society, but to the chagrin of the villainous Valentinov he is now competing for the world chess title. It has been 10 years since the two were together and when Luzhin sees him at the match, there’s no feeling of love or anger. Luzhin is obviously a person not possessing all his marbles, therefore whatever happens to him seems misplaced in importance. These flashbacks were an attempt at making crass amateur psychological explanations for Luzhin’s emotional instability due to his wretched upbringing.

Valentinov is such a vindictive person that he comes to the chess tournament only to curry favor with Turati in order to make sure Luzhin loses the match, as he hates Luzhin so much that he will do anything to sabotage him. He tells Turati all Luzhin’s weaknesses while he pressures, distracts, and even has his chauffeur take Luzhin for a ride to leave him stranded in the countryside, so he can miss a match. These scenes are of conventional villainy and added little meaning to Luzhin’s personal dilemma.

Vacationing in the fancy resort is the regal Russian √©migr√© Natalia (Emily Watson), a quiet beauty, who falls for the seedy looking and socially awkward chess genius. She tells her snobbish and Jew-hating mother (Geraldine James), who states the Jews invented radio to control the media, that she has just met the most “fascinating, enigmatic, and attractive man” – much to mom’s displeasure. The mother’s reaction is to break up this unlikely and embarrassing romance as quickly as she could, as she wires her husband in Berlin to come down here and help her in this endeavor. Mother is shocked that she chooses someone as socially unacceptable as this one, over the more socially desirous fellow she had in mind for a suitor.

The maternal romance that develops between the overly dependent Luzhin and the wealthy debutante who likes a simple man, seemed stuck in sentimentality. Everything about Luzhin seems heavy-handed and done only for effect. The comedy and romance attempted had the feel of a Charlie Chaplin venture done with a Charlie-like Turturro who couldn’t stop doing pratfalls, even when the film wanted to be dramatic. Whatever misfortune happens to Turturro, seemed overwrought and artificial. Turturro’s over-acting and the way the film tried to make this unfeeling love affair into a real one, seemed disingenuous. The Luzhin Defence was check mated at the opening bell.