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by nic wistreich | august, 2000

The Luzhin Defence

The Luzhin Defence is an adaptation of Vladimir's Nabokov's novel of the same name. Set in 1929, with flashbacks to the late nineteenth century, it tells the story of an introverted, unworldly chess Grand Master, Alexander Luzhin (John Turturro). Luzhin arrives in the Italian Lakes to play a title match, and unexpectedly falls in love with Natalia (Emily Watson). Already matched up by her family to the eminently suitable Comte de Stassard, Natalia is drawn to Luzhin's erratic genius and works to lift him outside his world of chess. But a villainous figure from his past returns to haunt him, threatening his game, love and health.

The Luzhin Defence is the first feature from feminist filmmaker Marleen Gorris with a male protagonist - Alexander Luzhin (John Turturro). Not only does the film focus on him, but Natalia (Emily Watson), whom he falls hopelessly in love with, is willing to sacrifice almost anything to support and help him in pursuit of his career. So is Gorris mellowing as a feminist? Not really, for in Gorris's telling of Nabokov's novel, Natalia's choice - between her heartfelt feelings for Luzhin and the expectations of her family and society to marry well - are as important as Luzhin's choice between playing chess and protecting his health.

We first meet Luzhin at a station where the local band has turned up to honour the arrival of a 'world famous chess player'. But the Maestro is not there, having fallen asleep on the train. Emerging from it bewildered, unkempt and dishevelled, Luzhin epitomises the absent-minded genius, with more than a faint resemblance to Geoffrey Rush in Shine. Turturro gives a very well observed performance, showing particular depth in the moments where Luzhin leaves his world of chess, be it to dance or gaze longingly at Natalia. Watson too gives a striking performance, with her eyes brilliantly externalising Natalia's inner struggles. Given Watson's skill as an actress, it's almost a shame that the film does not go further into Natalia's life, giving her a greater range to play with, and creating a fuller character for Luzhin to play against. But perhaps this is just because it is uncommon to see a film with Emily Watson where she is not the character suffering great physical, mental or spiritual trauma; where she is the nurse rather than patient.

Geraldine James as Natalia's mother Vera gives a tender portrayal of a woman limited by society's expectations, while Stuart Wilson's Valentinov is a fantastically evil villain, lurking behind pillars and whispering in ears like the slimiest of Machiavellian counsels.

Shot in Italy and Budapest, the film is quite stunning visually with beautiful interiors designed by Tony Burroughs, and broad shimmering vistas shot by cinematographer Bernard Lutic. While the pacing in some parts of the film could be seen as a little awkward, Marleen Gorris directs largely with panache. Of particular note are the chess tournaments where the seconds between each move become agonising nailbiting cliffhangers. It takes considerable skill to make such potentially boring or confusing sequences so exciting, and they reaffirm Gorris as a director of great talent and versatility.

Director: Marleen Gorris
Producer: Stephen Evans & Caroline Wood
Screenplay: Peter Berry
DOP: Bernard Luttic
Production Designer: Tony Burrough
Costume Designer: Jany Temime
Editor: Michaël Reichwein
Cast includes: John Turturro, Emily Watson, Geraldin James & Stuart Wilson
Production Company: Renaissance Films, Clear Blue Sky Productions
Distributor: Entertainment Film
Country: UK
Year: 2000
Length: 108 mins
Festival appearances: World Premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival,
North American premiere at Toronto Film Festival

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