The Luzhin Defence

The Luzhin Defence


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Was it Hitchcock who said that bad literature made the best movies? Probably not. Good literature, on the other hand, can stifle a film.

Marleen Gorris won recognition and awards for Antonia's Line. Here she tackles a Vladimir Nabokov short story that needs the elegance of words to clothe its elaborate construction.

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Alexander Luzhin, a young Russian aristocrat, is taken out of school for being unteachable. He's a dreamer, who discovers an exceptional aptitude for chess. At an early age, the headmaster of his school, Mr Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), persuades his father to let him become the boy's manager and so begins an international career of tournament competition.

In the late Twenties, Natalia (Emily Watson) is brought to the Italian resort of Lake Como by her mother (Geraldine James) for the purpose of finding a husband. When she takes pity and falls in love with the shambolic Luzhin (John Turturro), whose social skills are an embarrassment, her mother is shocked and appalled.

Luzhin is at Lake Como for a world tournament with the greatest Italian player of the age (Fabio Sartor). His infatuation with Natalia compliments and then upsets his game, although the reappearance of Valentinov, who many years before had left him stranded with the rebuke, "You are never going to be more than you are now and what you are now is not good enough", is more disturbing.

The struggle for Luzhin's heart and soul adds tension to the tournament. Will the devious Valentinov succeed in taking revenge on his former protégé? Will Natalia's strength overcome all obstacles? Will Luzhin lay the ghosts of his past and win the game?

Gorris shuffles time in a awkward way, so that scenes from Luzhin's childhood appear at first to be happening simultaneously to Natalia's arrival at Lake Como. The boy Alexander bears no resemblance in character to the man. When young, he is mischievous and lively. When grown-up, he is shy and nervous. For someone who has spent the first 10 years of his life in a big house, with servants and family, Luzhin appears to have picked up nothing of basic etiquette, which is difficult to believe.

Watson is wonderful, as always, although James steals the film with an inspired comic performance. Turturro plays Luzhin as the village idiot. His pained expression implies childlike insecurity, his shambling unsophistication contrasting with the intensity of the competition. Finally, the actors appear as pawns in Nabokov's game when they should feel stimulated by Gorris's vision.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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A chess player falls for a socialite.
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Read more The Luzhin Defence reviews:

Nicola Osborne ****

Director: Marleen Gorris

Writer: Peter Berry, based on a story by Vladimir Nabokov

Starring: John Turturro, Emily Watson, Geraldine James, Stuart Wilson, Christopher Thompson, Fabio Sartor

Year: 2000

Runtime: 108 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


EIFF 2000

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