The Luzhin Defence
With John Turturro, Emily Watson
Directed by Marleen Gorris

My Rating:

A tragic romance well played, but not for purists.

Subtract 3/4 star if you are a member of the International
Chess Federation or any of its national subsidiaries.

Subtract 1/2 star if you love Nabokov and are a literary purist.

Add 1/4 star if romanticism easily deluges your soul.

Bitable Bytes:
"Adorable, Romantic!"
"Got the Wife Excited!"
"Catches the Fancy!"
"Watson does great work!"

What to do while watching:
Nothing extra.

What to eat while watching:

Once again, I must credit my adorable romantic wife for this week's selection. Insisting that her enjoyment of this film was not entirely dependent on her crush on John Turturro, she said I'd enjoy it as a person who likes games as well as movies. You see, this romance comes in the wrapping of a chess story.

What the wife didn't realize is that I'd read the Games Magazine review of the film, which panned it for being inaccurate within the gestalt of the game itself. The chess expert who wrote the review took a careful look at the scenario and determined that both the strategic Charybdis at the center of the tale, and the inspired breakthrough, were bogus Hollywood constructs.

Well, that's not such a surprise, is it? Even a Hollywood film that dares the pretension of using a British spelling in its title is still not likely to be based on careful research of the details. So, I won't focus on the gaming subtleties of The Luzhin Defence at all and will just talk about what got the wife so excited about the piece--and that also pleased me considerably. And if you are not a fanatical chess buff, you too can be transported by Emily Watson's delightful personality, Turturro's skill in capturing his character (and his overall versatility as an actor), and the tension within the games, both board and interpersonal.

(On another topic, I have gleaned from friends that this story is far from the masterpiece that is the Nabokov book on which it is based. Also no surprise there: I think Hollywood "adaptations" are getting farther and farther away from their printed counterparts. So literary types and Nabokov nebbishes are warned not to view this film as related in any way to Vladimir's original vision.)

Set during the early side of the last century, The Luzhin Defence tells the story of one Alexander Luzhin, chess genius, played by Turturro. His tortured soul is haunted by loneliness and a tense childhood with a weasely father, a cold and distant mother, and a boisterous auntie. Luzhin's quirks as a boy led him to discover his gift for chess, which, in turn, fostered an obsession that has left him without social skills of any kind as an adult. Overtones of David Helfgott (portrayed by Geoffrey Rush) in Shine and Rainman's Raymond (portrayed by Dustin Hoffman).

In spite of his slovenliness, moodiness, and constant look of total confusion, some innate attractiveness (that, perhaps, my wife could explain) catches the fancy of a young Russian lady on holiday at the resort where the world chess championship is to be played. I'll call her Nikola because I can't remember the character's name. I can remember the actress though: Emily Watson does great work in the role. She is cute in an untraditional way, with a sparkle in her eye, and an embodiment of character to match and rival Turturro's.

Nikola is turned on by Alexander's total inability to make small talk or to dissemble civilized behavior. She's intrigued by the mopey genius, and she spurns the suave French suitor to spend more time watching chess. But all is not well. Luzhin's old tutor has resurfaced and plots to make money on Luzhin's defeat. This saboteur leverages Luzhin's mental faults in the most manipulative, evil way, providing a redoubtable conflict in what otherwise might be about as interesting as watching a game of chess. The tutor's strategies, of course, are extensions of the subtlest of strategy games into the world of people, and chess references and motifs abound.

Nikola, meantime, plays foil to the tutor's black king. As white queen, she gives Luzhin reason to hold onto his iffy sanity. To paraphrase the old song: she gives him hope. To carry on. She nurtures his one other interest: dancing. She plans to marry him, and she even rescues him from a fatal anxiety attack by essentially kidnapping him away from the game and its attendant mental pressures. It looks like she will win against the evil chess impresario, but the tug-of-war continues until, and through, Luzhin's grand finale.

I don't want to give too much away, because I think this is worth seeing. Watson and Turturro are supported by a very competent cast, and it is the skill and taste the ensemble shows that finally gets me to forgive the use of the word "Defence." Taken as a dramatic romance, the movie has plenty to offer.


Finally, Tom Green Is off My Hands
Squire David Fleischmann is the helpful recipient of this video cassette. Having appreciated some of Green's antics on MTV, he was curious to see this movie in spite of my panniest of pans. In our conversations (via e-mail) we drew a parallel between this film and The Jerky Boys. The main part of the humor of both the J Boys and Green is that their acts are spontaneous and perpetrated on innocent bystanders. Scripting and filming this kind of comedy makes it pointless. I think David will be terrified by what he sees, but he has said he is willing to run over the cassette in his Honda should it fail to please. If only he could run over Green himself, while the latter mugs, 'twould be priceless footage.

Want to share a happy story with Gooden?

Gooden loves to share!

For your collection: The Luzhin Defence (DVD), The Luzhin Defence (VHS)

Gooden's listening to: Howlin' Wolf's Howlin' Wolf/Moanin' in the Moonlight (on Chess Records)

 Big Empire  Post-it Theater  Las Vegas  The Gift Electroniqué  Big Empire Buddies


©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.