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The Luzhin Defence, The (2000, John Turturro, Emily Watson)

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Has there been a more varied career than John Turturro’s? Alongside ten-pin bowling pederasts and talking dogs comes the slow-burn drama adapted from the author of Lolita, set in ’20s Italy. Russian grandmaster Alexander Luzhin (John Turturro) arrives at a Lake Como hotel in advance of a chess tournament. His strange behaviour is noticed by another guest, Natalia (Emily Watson), and the pair start an affair.

Gradually, Luzhin’s biography is sketched out: lonely childhood forces introspection, and his parents abdicate responsibility by handing him over to mentor Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), who exploits his chess talents. When Luzhin’s talent wanes, Valentinov abandons him. But the chance for revenge comes in the Italian tournament, and as Luzhin reaches the final he plans to face Valentinov’s new prodigy. The eccentric Russian soon realises there’s more than just a game of chess at stake, as Natalia looks on…

Nabokov said of his hero, ‘there is something in him that transcends both the coarseness of his grey flesh and the sterility of his recondite genius.’ Dutch director Marleen Gorris agrees, making her second English language project (the first was Mrs Dalloway ) a rich and rewarding study of solipsism. Turturro astounds, making Luzhin into a Charlie Chaplin figure complete with walking stick and bow-legged gait. It works because such eccentricity – the failure to observe social niceties – is the obvious result of his immersion into tournament chess. Blinkered to anything unrelated to a black and white board, the character mutters and stumbles his way through scenes with a crazed intensity. In this context, romance should be utterly unconvincing. But Watson echoes her role in Punch Drunk Love by charming the strange hero. Natalia is sweet and undemanding (the author called her ‘my gentle young lady’), building a chemistry with Luzhin that becomes his dilemma (personal happiness or professional success?) and drives this haunting, unforgettable film.

production details
UK – Italy | 109 minutes | 2000

Director: Marleen Gorris
Writer: Peter Berry (from the novel by Vladimir Nabokov)

cast
John Turturro as Aleksandr Ivanovich ‘Sascha’ Luzhin
Emily Watson as Natalia Katkov
Geraldine James as Vera, Natalia’s Mother
Stuart Wilson as Valentionov
Fabio Sartor as Turati
Peter Blythe as Ilya
Orla Brady as Anna
Mark Tandy as Luzhin’s Father
Kelly Hunter as Luzhin’s Mother