The Luzhin Defence

Chess on screen can be mesmerizing if done correctly. The strategy and drama present in a game can translate well on screen. In this respect, The Luzhin Defence succeeds. It assumes that the viewer has a working knowledge of the game, and moves quickly. One can watch a game and feel the intensity as plans emerge. Where The Luzhin Defence, based on the novel The Defense by Vladamir Nabokov, does not succeed is in explaining the motivations behind its characters. Alexander Luzhin (John Turturro, Company Man, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) is a brilliant Russian chess player, in Italy for a tournament.

He meets and almost immediately proposes to Natalia (Emily Watson, Trixie, Angela's Ashes). Alexander's entire life is devoted to chess. He dresses poorly, has bad social skills, and seems lost in his own world. It is probably more than his fanatical devotion to chess that causes this. These quirks attract Natalia, who is a rich, smart, independent single woman. Like all other rich, smart, independent single women in these movies, she does not go for the typical man. Her mother is horrified when she meets Alexander. He has none of the social graces necessary for her idea of class.

Director Marleen Gorris (Antonia's Line, Mrs. Dalloway) and adapter Peter Berry (Heaven on Earth, A Life for a Life) do a good job with the chess, but do not fare as well on the relationship. Alexander's character has an excuse; he is just idiosyncratic. Gorris and Berry do shed light on his background by flashing back to his youth, and helping to explain the genesis of his obsession, and some possible explanations for his odd behavior. Natalia is another matter. Her love for Alexander remains mysterious. Sure she does not want a man who plays the dating game and wants to get back at her mother, but that does not necessarily explain why she literally runs into the arms of Alexander. There is no reason why this shouldn't be a short infatuation. Her character is much too smart.

The Luzhin Defence looks great, as it should. Gorris went through all the motions in making a nice Merchant-Ivory-ish film, complete with the careful diction, pretty costumes, and reliance on social class to determine potential love. What is lacking is real emotion, whether apparent or masked behind flowery language. The movie can focus on Luzhin or his relationship, but in doing both, it loses out. One of the best scenes in the movie shows Luzhin at the board. As he looks at the board, the pieces move in rapid succession, mimicking his thoughts on potential moves. The result is exhilarating, too bad it lasts only seconds.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 46 minutes, Rated PG-13 for some sensuality and thematic elements.

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