The Luzhin Defence

The Luzhin Defence


Reviewed by: Nicola Osborne

Chess is renowned for producing eccentric and socially backward individuals. Alexander Luzhin (John Turturro) is one of those. His passion for the game blocks out everything else in the world. He dresses badly in old and battered clothes, has no regard for other people and is perplexed by small talk, instead retreating constantly to his room to work out his latest chess moves. However, at one of the biggest tournaments of his life he meets Natalia (Emily Watson) and begins to glimpse the outside world through her...

Based on a short story by Vladimir Nabokov this is a sweet and rather tragic little story, although the direction is light with gentle comedy introduced at the beginning of the film. Turturro is frequently cast in intelligent, odd and somewhat unworldly characters for the very good reason that he does them so well.

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Here Turturro is magnificent in his affectionate playing of Luzhin, managing to be enigmatic but just sympathetic enough for both Natalia and viewers. He is wonderfully unkempt, but seethes with unspoken intelligence and complex emotional reactions, which renders some of the flashback scenes to his childhood almost unnecessary.

Watson is excellent as Natalia (though like the rest of the Russians here she speaks with a perfect English accent) a role that calls for much meaningful staring and an intelligent curiosity in the hopeless Luzhin. She pulls this off successfully, despite her character lacking the intrigue of Turturro's.

Geraldine James, meanwhile, gets to have fun here as Natalia's mother and laps up the opportunities for hopeful matchmaking between her daughter and some far more suitable partners than shambling chess-players.

A brilliant score and beautifully accomplished cinematography help maintain an atmosphere of excitement in the chess scenes whilst also giving the film a hugely romantic and often playful feeling.

Flashbacks to Luzhin's past are used but do not entirely work - while they offer an insight into Luzhin's strange personality they sometimes ask more questions than they answer.

A sweeping, sad and mysterious movie - one of the best British films of the year.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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A chess player falls for a socialite.
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Angus Wolfe Murray ***

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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