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By John B. Henderson
Movie Review: The Luzhin Defence
Release date: September 8

The Luzhin Defence

Rating: ****
Director: Marleen Gorris
Starring: John Turturro,
Emily Watson, Geraldine
James, Stuart Wilson,
Christopher Thompson

Dutch director Marleen Gorris’s films are always well worth watching, and she’s got the Oscar (for Antonia’s Line in 1996) to prove it. Adapted from the Vladimir Nabokov novel of the same name, Gorris has again weaved her magic with yet another thought-provoking period piece beautifully set around Italy’s great Lake Como in the late 1920s.

For a chess-lover, though, her latest film is absolutely compelling. Never before has the cinema shown the tensions, detail and drama of a chess tournament as vividly as Gorris does in The Luzhin Defence.

But John Turturro, whose whole acting career is based on the convincing portrayal of flawed obsessives, is also outstanding as grandmaster Alexander Luzhin, who is forced to choose between love of the game and the love of the first woman ever to show an interest in him. This is acting at the highest level, as Turturro bangs out his moves on the board with all the flair of a true player, handling his pieces with intimidating confidence that would even have frightened Garry Kasparov.

Although knowledge of the game isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying the film, it does at least hint at how a top player can work out six or eight moves ahead of the play: in the most dramatic chess battle, the camera shows the pieces gliding automatically into the configurations where Luzhin’s brain has already placed them.

Adapted from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel of the same name and set in the late 1920s, the movie has a certain Merchant Ivory appeal to it. It tells the story of the shambling, shy, unworldly chess grandmaster, who has retreated and found solace through the logic of chess after witnessing the failure of his parents’ marriage. Luzhin’s one-dimensional world is turned upside down when he finds love. He cannot deny his feelings when he meets a beautiful Russian aristocrat, Natalia Katkova (Emily Watson), while preparing to play in the tournament of his life: the world chess championship.

Katkova is, in turn, drawn to Luzhin’s erratic genius, much to the annoyance of her mother (Geraldine James) but their liaison is doomed as family and "friends" conspire to keep the lovers apart. Tormented by his inability to choose between his two passions, chess or Natalia, fame or happiness, Luzhin has a nervous breakdown. His psychiatrist recommends that he should give up chess and pursue his love for Natalia but Luzhin cannot make the ultimate sacrifice: chess.

In chess circles the best-known part of Nabokov’s story - which is basically a sort of chess equivalent of Hamlet - is the fact that the novel’s main character commits suicide by jumping out of a window. But this is not quite as fanciful as many have thought. Nabakov, a chess problemist and amateur player, knew what he was writing about: then and now, tragedy has always been a key player in the game.

Last year, for example, Estonian grandmaster Lembit Oll, depressed that his wife had left him and also that he couldn’t get invitations to top ranking international chess tournaments, committed suicide by jumping out of the window of his fourth-floor apartment. There have been at least three other deaths in the past ten years, all in similar circumstances involving lost love and inabililty to play at the top level because of a nervous breakdown. And indeed Nabokov actually based his story on one of his friends; the Berlin chess master Curt von Bardeleben, who in 1924 took his own life in a similar, dramatic fashion.

Although this film will never be a big hit at the box office because of its difficult subject matter (chess, love, psychological disorders and suicide - a pretty lethal and depressing combination at the best of times!) The Luzhin Defence is an intelligent, atmospheric piece of work with a superb cast. As Ali G would say: Check it!

General release, 8th September.

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