Director – Marleen Gorris – 2000 – UK – Cert. 12 – 109m
An unscrupulous teacher tracks a grown-up, former child Chess prodigy to Italy and attempts to exploit him for further gain – in cinemas from Friday, September 8th 2000
Adapted from the novel by Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), this is ostensibly set for the most part in and around a Chess tournament in Northern Italy in 1929. Ostensibly because parallel plot strands flash back in time to the childhood of one of the contestants, Russian Master Alexander Luzhin (an unkempt, shambling and top form John Turturro).
The boy Alexander (Alexander Hunting) fares badly at school and suffers terribly as an all-round failure until it’s realised that he’s good at Chess. And not just good – his world-class genius is soon being exploited for financial gain by unscrupulous schoolteacher Valentinov (Stuart Wilson) only to be dumped the moment he stops winning. Valentinov has tracked Luzhin down to the 1929 tournament, determine to trample upon his former charge’s independently achieved fame and success.
However, he’s reckoned without the is young and marriageable aristocrat Natalia (Emily Watson, also on top form) who, instead of being wooed as intended for eligible bachelor Stassard (Christopher Thompson), is swept off her feet by the socially clumsy and clearly unsuitable Luzhin.
This is one of those films where story is for the most part perfectly suited by director, cast and crew. Turturro is unforgettable scribbling in notebooks, obsessed with working out Chess strategies yet incapable of even the most elementary social transactions. Watson is spellbinding as his convention-shattering soul mate. The whole thing is scripted, photographed and paced with compelling gravity.
For good measure, a not inconsiderable amount of sex (absolutely essential to the plot) is thrown in. While there are plenty of light touches, this is not afraid to confront its darker elements head on. Prior to the final ten or so minutes – where the narrative closure doesn’t entirely convince – it’s perfectly judged cinematic storytelling that plays far, far better than one would expect.
The Luhzin Defence is in cinemas from Friday, September 8th 2000.
Reviewed for AdHoc, September 2000.