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The Luzhin Defence

The Luzhin Defense

Perhaps similar to the game of chess as those who've played can attest, The Luzhin Defense from Vladimir Nabokov's novella is eccentric and often absorbing from the enticing attraction between its capable leads, John Turturro and Elie Watson.

This tale of Turturro's Grand Chess Master Alexander Luzhin paired with Watson's debutante Natalia in 1920's Italy sets up the mores of wealthy emigres after the first World War and Marlene Gorris' penetrating look into a socially troubled man who falls in love when reaching his greatest challenge in a career which has become a life-long obsession.

Up until his big match against his strongest rival, chess has been Alexander's way of understanding life.  But now Natalia, her grace and elegance, works on the maddening mind set of a man close to being a world champion.  His presence doesn't repel her and against the wishes of her mother (Geraldine James) to marry into high society, she quickly opts for Luzhin's forthrightness and feels a maternal quality to stand by a genius who relies almost totally on his mind.

The screenplay by Peter Berry fits well into the enigma of a fascinating man caught between a new life with Natalia and what can bring down a man in a grueling match with a tolerant grandmaster.  Gorris' villain of The Luzhin Defense, in a mournful way, works on what can break the internal forces that keep Alexander focused.  As in Gorris' more poignant films, Mrs. Dalloway and Antonia's Line, flashbacks are interspersed within Luzhin's broadening present life and she doesn't overdo how the elements of the game translate into his daily life.

Watson's role is enhanced dramatically from the book and is different from her recent angst filled or ranging parts.  The emotions that she imbues into Natalia have a connection with Turturro's methodically innocent, but vulnerable Alexander that is unlikely, yet it's to their credit that they draw us into a love that is cognizant of what motivates them while solving the problems of a cerebral game and the human heart.

Many would think that it would be hard to make a gripping movie from such a mental game without action, but if Turturro vividly calls to mind Searching for Bobby Fisher, The Luzhin Defense plays at a level which uses well-drawn characters, lovely settings and costumes to intricately position solitude and love in check with obsession and ambition.  It won't be deeply embraced for its emotional, though somewhat unconvincing conclusion, but Tardier and Watson find a thoughtful way to rock a cradled world not far from a shore side villa.

The Luzhin Defense

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