What to do while watching:
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
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