Having been a tournament chess player, I'm familiar with the lifestyle and stereotypes associated with professional chess players, so I ascertain that The Luzhin Defence, based on Vladimir Nabokov's novel, seriously attempts to deal with the mentality of a chess genius. The film captures the spirit of an obsessed chess master rather well, even when some of the details aren't completely believable.
John Turturro has played eccentrics before, like his Harvey Stemple in Quiz Show. This time he portrays the fictional obsessed chess grandmaster Alexander Luzhin, who arrives at an Italian resort on Lake Como in the 1920s for a world championship tournament, only to become entranced by society beauty Natalia Katkova (Emily Watson). Luzhin fits the chess genius stereotype—a man so pre-occupied by the game that he forgets about his unkempt appearance and may forget exactly where he is. One telling scene occurs when Luzhin literally becomes so absorbed with an adjourned game that he absent-mindedly tells the cab driver to let him out after solving his chess position, only to transform his ecstasy to despair when he realizes that he is helplessly abandoned in the countryside.
It’s a huge stretch to think that any chessmaster could become sidetracked by a woman when he is competing for a world championship. But that happens here. The rebellious Natalia has no desire to follow her mother's wishes, and is charmed by Luzhin's eccentricity and brutal honesty. With no pretense about him, Luzhin goes for the gusto—bluntly proposing marriage when he and Natalia have hardly even conversed.
As unbelievable as that situation is, Turturro adds some nice touches that do ring true—the chain-smoking and continuously wearing his only suit (well rumpled). It's hard to imagine a man with more internal thoughts than a chess grandmaster, and Turturro's awkward silences when meeting Natalia's parents are on the mark. Especially good is an inarticulate encounter with her father. Turturro's silence turns to animated eloquence when Natalia’s father asks him about the “best chess move&rdquo—his whole body language gets into the act when on this comfortable ground, for the obsessed chess master has “lived” on the 64 squares for “9,263 days, 4 hours and 5 minutes.”
Other details that absolutely nail serious chess players occur on the chess board—Turturro's confident and arrogant slamming of the pieces and the rapid visualization of chess positions revealed by the camera during his championship match. Chess is a difficult activity to film well, so instead of focussing much on the board play (which would only interest a relative handful of chessplayers), Turturro communicates his geekiness through his awkward body movements and reveals his tortured childhood through effective flashbacks to show his budding obsession with the game.
Turturro and Watson perform well here. Both are familiar with eccentric characters, so their unusual romance appears believably tender and appropriate—a match made for independent cinema.
What at first appears to be a quirky romance turns to melodrama when Luzhin's villainous former mentor named Valentinov (Stuart Wilson) shows up, plots for Luzhin’s defeat, and forces him to choose between chess and love. Through flashbacks we learn that Valentinov had torn the young Alexander from his family much like Thatcher in Citizen Kane in order to develop his chess abilities—only to discover that the evil mentor uses Alexander as a travelling sideshow for gambling money, abandoning him after he loses one simultaneous game.
Director Marleen Gorris (Antonia's Line) has crafted a competent chess drama, but it didn’t grab me like I thought it would, having known a number of chess eccentrics very well. However, several parts don’t feel real to me and the villain's unconvincing attempts at sabotage come across lamely. His simplistic assessment that Luzhin doesn't do well under pressure demonstrates absolutely no understanding of competitive chess at the highest level.
Mostly, I had a difficult time accepting the premise that such a chess genius, so absorbed in the game, would even fall in love when he's on the verge of the most important match of his career. Chess masters far more frequently behave like Turturro when he walks around completely self-absorbed and unaware of other humans. Romantic love thoughts are blocked out during matches. Then after suspending belief to allow the love story to evolve, we are expected to believe that Luzhin will fall apart because of his chess obsession. This simply isn't realistic.
I've known men who sacrificed their wives to continue playing chess—and that's not even on a master level. Others are far more obsessed like former U.S. champion Walter Browne and Bobby Fischer (who thought ONLY of chess). While it makes perfect sense for an obsessed chess grandmaster to lose his sense of perspective, it just doesn't ring true when that grandmaster has found human love in his life.
Luzhin's Defense ranks as decent entertainment and Turturro supplies some good moments, but without a believable emotional core the film falls short of what it could have been.