Directed by: Marleen Gorris
Starring: John Turturro, Emily Watson, Geraldine Hames, Stuart Wilson
"How long have you been playing chess?" Natalia (Emily Watson, Breaking the Waves) asks chess genius Alexander Luzhin (John Turturro) during one of their early meetings in Marleen Gorris' film of Vladimir Nabokov's novel, The Luzhin Defence. "Nine thousand, two hundred and sixty-three days, four hours and five minutes," he answers matter-of-factly before she can finish apologizing for the triteness of her question. This is just one of the numerous small touches in the film that seem perfectly charming on the surface, but gradually create the picture of Alexander's mental instability. And those touches are just part of the brilliant accomplishment of director Marleen Gorris and screenwriter Peter Bery (A Life for a Life), along with Turturro and Watson -- particularly Turturro, a specialized performer who hasn't been so suited to a role since his Clifford Odetts-like character in Barton Fink. The film -- set on the Italian lakes in 1929 -- is never less than gorgeous to look at. It seems in many ways a (not unwelcome) throwback to 1970s period films -- designed to capture the essence of a time and place -- such as Death in Venice and Mahler. As with those films, The Luzhin Defence exists on numerous levels at once. Yes, it's the tragic story of the strange romance between Alexander and Natalia, but it's also a commentary on the changing -- even dying -- world they inhabit. The sad depiction of the passing of an era (even though much about the era is less than desirable) suffuses the film with a deep melancholy that gives it its weight. To understand the characters' peculiar romance, it's necessary to understand their world. Alexander's gawky unworldliness ("I want you to be my wife. I implore you to agree," he tells her before he even knows her name) intrigues and touches Natalia, but her interest in him is equally grounded in her reaction to the suitably connected and monied marital candidates her mother (Geraldine James) tries to foist upon her. Alexander's very strangeness and his helpless demeanor makes him a refreshing alternative to her mother's desires. It's partly a manifestation of her seeming need to "mother" him, but it's also an act of rebellion to fall in love with Alexander. However, the romance, like the civilization it takes place in, is doomed because it is not grounded in reality, but in denial. Alexander is slowly revealed -- partly through a series of flashbacks to his troubled childhood, but mostly through Turturro's brilliantly nuanced performance -- as more dangerously unstable than awkwardly eccentric. He exists within the confines of his own fantasy, distracting and distancing himself with strangely detailed and romanticized obsessions about his past. Totally unsuited to the passing age he was born into, he is even less suited to what that age is becoming. When his chess tutor, Valentinov (Stuart Wilson, Mask of Zorro) arrives on the scene with plans to help defeat his one-time protégé by assisting his opponent, Turati (Fabio Sartor, Not of This World), Alexander is a lost cause. This deliberate and ruthless attempt is bound to succeed in destroying the fragile genius. The film, however, has one trick up its sleeve in this regard, which blessedly allows The Luzhin Defence to add one final level to the ones on which it has already worked. The result? A tragedy that was not without its ultimate purpose. It is this final summation that pushes the film into the realm of something at least approaching greatness.