The Luzhin Defence

Directed by Marleen Gorris
Starring: John Turturro, Emily Watson, Geraldine James, Stuart Wilson, Christopher Thompson.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sensuality and thematic elements.

Review by Matt Heffernan <>
May 15, 2001

As I flip to Barton Fink playing on TV, I realize that I can no longer put off my review of The Luzhin Defence: the latest film to star John Turturro as a mad genius.

This time he is Alexandre Luzhin, a famous Russian chess player who comes to Italy to compete in the world championships. >From the age of ten, his life has been devoted to chess, leaving him so socially inept and physically weak that he appears catatonic at times. Nevertheless, he is still revered by the staff at the resort he lodges in. They call him "Maestro", carefully lay out his breakfast table, and otherwise treat him like a helpless infant prince.

But not fellow guest Natalia Katkov (Emily Watson). After a brief show of kindness without exultation or condescension, he asks for her hand in marriage. At the horror of her mother (Geraldine James), she accepts, but soon sees that chess is killing Alexandre from all the stress. So, she gives him a mortal ultimatum: continue with the tournament and die, or live a full life with her, but completely without chess.

Now, this seems like a great idea for a short story or film, but Nabokov made it into a full-length novel, and now Marleen Gorris (Antonia's Line) has made it into a feature. The casting is perfect -- a little too perfect, really. The parts seem tailor-made for Turturro and Watson, as if Nabokov had them in mind before they were even born.

Of course, the big problem with the film is that it's very much about Luzhin's internal struggle. He had an oppressive childhood, and then a mentor (Stuart Wilson) who betrayed him. This is expressed well, but it's just not interesting enough to sustain the film. In trying to bring this character to the screen, the film sometimes goes a little overboard, making one wish for the subtleties of Searching for Bobby Fischer. But alas, Ben Kingsley never showed up with a sheet of parchment, and Larry Fishburne behind him giving knowing nods.

Ultimately, Luzhin's obsession with a board game is less inherently cinematic than Humbert's obsession with an adolescent girl, which makes the film try too hard. I liked The Luzhin Defence, but not as much as I should have.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
The Luzhin Defence (2000)

Here's some merchandise for sale at
The Luzhin Defence (2000) -- VHS
The Luzhin Defence (2000) -- DVD
The Defense, a novel by Vladimir Nabokov -- Paperback
The Luzhin Defence: Soundtrack -- Compact Disc Home
Review Archive
Video Pick of the Week
Guide to Star Ratings

Review © 2001 Matt Heffernan