A review of  The Luzhin Defence” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: PG-13 for adult situations

Run Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

 

An eccentric chess Grand Master arrives at a sumptuous Italian resort for the most important match of his life, which is abruptly turned inside out by a fateful meeting with a lovely Russian émigré.  Love and obsession make beautiful music in this romantic drama based on the Vladimir Nabokov novel of the same name. 

Alexander Luzhin (John Turturro) is a classic child prodigy turned socially incompetent adult.  Disheveled and awkward, he is nonetheless a world-class genius whose singular focus is an isolated universe of rooks and pawns.  Strolling the manicured lawns at a lush Lake Como resort (circa 1929), idiot savant-ish Alexander drops trails of fragmented debris from his torn pants pockets and shuffles to melancholy tunes only he can hear.  When Alexander spots hotel guest Natalia (Emily Watson) enjoying a private outdoor moment, cupid’s arrow pierces deep into his heart.  Emboldened by this novel sensation, Alexander uneasily woos the Russian beauty, and the two ultimately fall in love.

Alexander and Natalia are an admiration society of two.  Natalia’s parents are horror-stricken at their charismatic child’s choice of a partner, and scandalized when she resolves to prepare Alexander for his big match with dancing lessons and long sessions of pre-marital lovemaking.  For Alexander, the dichotomy of feeling is an agonizing struggle.  How to build an impenetrable mental defense against his opponent’s opening game moves, while at the same time surrendering his emotional defenses for the woman he loves.

This film succeeds as the sum of its carefully crafted parts.  A conventional, thematic love story, bolstered by striking cinematography, stunning period attire and tour de force performances. Turturro plays the tortured genius with a frenetic dignity, albeit a tad too idiosyncratically. Watson is luminous - an ethereal vision of wistful smiles and loving conviction.  Following in the footsteps of my all-time favorite “Searching for Bobby Fischer”, the chess is made nicely accessible for the uninitiated. Sinister characterizations by bit players lend the happy romance an edgy heft, while Luzhin’s inevitable clash of reality and fantasy results in heady cerebral fireworks that punctuate this engaging melodrama.