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The Luzhin Defence
Directed by Marleen Gorris, writing credits Vladimir Nabokov (novel) and Peter Berry. (Word: indeed, the American spelling of the title would be Defense, but the film is indeed titled The Luzhin Defence.)

Alexander Luzhin (portrayed by John Turturro) is an eccentric genius and socially inept chess master who is at an Italian resort to participate in a world chess tournament. While there, he meets the fascinating independent Natalia Katkov (Emily Watson) and falls strangely in love with her, not knowing her name and having spoken to her only once for no longer than ten minutes.

Natalia, for her part, is immediately fascinated by this creature, this shambling unkempt man who proposes marriage to her without even knowing her name. Even though it has been clear from the beginning of this film that she is strongly resisting her mothers' notions of marrying her off, she does not refuse Luzhin proposal right away. Instead, they progress into having a slightly awkward love affair.

The film is told in alternating story lines, interleaving the current scenes with Luzhin's history as a series of flashbacks. The movie is confident enough to allow a significant amount of action of Luzhin at different ages. This is good, works well.

We see a young Sasha, (Alexander Hunting), parents' relationship strained by the presence of Aunt Anna, who is more of a lover to his father than sister-in-law. A fair to middling student, Luzhin takes to the game as his parents' marriage crumbles around him. The film does not imply that either his talent or near-insanity is sparked by emotional distress, but Does imply, though, that it may have been amplified by a singular focus that locked out any emotion whatsoever.

Luzhin's current grip on reality is somewhat tenuous, however, hovering over the borderline between mad genius and true insanity. Confusing love with chess, combining it all as conditional. Winning the tournament seems imperative to his maintaining mental balance, and initially his relationship with Natalia seems to loosen him up a little. (Meanwhile, she defends him against her parents' opposition, against anyone's claims that she may be daft for even associating with him.)

Things come to a head when an old manager of his, Valentinov, appears. The chess entrepeneur made money off Luzhin for years, finally abandoning him during an unlucky period. Upset at having dumped him too soon (i.e., before the luck ran out, while there were still bets and money to have been made), Valentinov is intent on seeing Luzhin fail, and places him under intense mental pressure, which forces a confrontation in Luzhin's hair-trigger mind between love and chess.

The Luzhin Defence is character-driven, not plot-driven, and from the start, the picture maintains a dramatic balance between the two leads. Both Turturro and Watson are masterful, evincing a slow chemistry and managing to make the odd couple work on screen. Turturro makes Luzhin shambolic, confused, and full of blank bewilderment, but never into a caricature of what he should be. In turn, Watson easily makes Natalia into a woman full of quiet strength and intelligence. They are both superb.

The Luzhin Defence is surprisingly compelling in its keen yet slow examination of madness, obsession and attraction, and succeeds extremely well at showing Luzhin's disintegration of sanity into derangement. Indeed, even as it moves toward an emotional release that may be predictable, it is still satisfying. It does not seem at all artificial or manipulative.

It's quite an accomplishment to make a movie about chess, well, interesting, but this film based on Nabokov's novel pulls it off wonderfully. Actually, it cannot (should not) really be called a realized version of Nabokov's novel, as it is not really Nabokov. What it is, though, is an impressively poised and intriguing period piece.

This movie more than satisfied me.

Cast overview, first billed:

Thanks imdb, http://eonline.com, http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/2000/09/06/luzhin_defence_review.shtml, http://www.crankycritic.com/archive01/luzhindefence.html, http://www.oneguysopinion.com/review.asp?ID=348, and others.

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