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on 19 February 2005
The talented John Turturro and Emily Watson head an excellent cast delicately directed by Marleen Gorris to tell the story of THE LUZHIN DEFENCE. The Russian chess genius, Luzhin is believably played by Turturro whose range is unbelievably broad and convincing.
Story: Alexander (Sacha) Luzhin, a disheveled and erratic chess master [reminiscent of the main character, musical genius in SHINE] arrives at a resort in the Italian Lakes to compete in the world chess championships. He had visited the same resort many years earlier with his cold and distant parents who we meet in frequent flashbacks. Childhood memories disturb Luzhin during his stay. Among the guests at the resort is the beautiful Natalia (Watson), hounded by her mother (Geraldine James) to the search for a class perfect husband. Believing the handsome Stassard (Christopher Thompson) is the perfect candidate, Natalia's mother is horrified when she pursues a relationship with Luzhin after he spontaneously declares his love for her and he proposes marriage to her across a fence at a tennis court. As the final contest of the chess tournament approaches, Luzhin's treacherous former mentor Valentinov (Stuart Wilson) arrives at the resort and plots to destroy his game; and, indeed, his life.
Alexander's complicated relationships with Natalia, his parents and his mentor are all explored in the movie. But only one is explored to a satisfactory level -- his relationship with chess itself. The movie is reduced by some flawed stereotypes such as the villainous Valentinov and the society-obsessed mother. These distract from what is essentially a dark story of humans using each other as pawns in a game. Also on the negative side of the ledger is the absurd inaccuracey of the Lanc Hid (Chain Bridge) juxtaposed with the Millenium Park in Budapest, Hungary. The two places are several miles apart but in THE LUZHIN DEFENCE, Director Gorris changes the city for the sake of a departure shot. That' simply not honest.
On the positive side, the rhythms of Vladimir Nabokov's prose (in a screenplay by Peter Berry) conveys the the sad, sometimes comic, story. Luzhin's White Russian emigre class are a people so cultivated and refined that wherever they travel they feel at home. But for poor Luzhin, his crippling by neuroses will not allow him to participate in this life. Turturro, as usual, is superb. He could have turned Luzhin into a highly amusing freak show, and it would have been great fun but it would have ruined the movie. He keeps Luzhin's pathos clearly in focus. We can feel the torment that Luzhin undergoes so crushingly that we must admire his noble battle to stand up to oppressors not only all around him, but from his own mind. Turturro's tenderness, even romance are not associated with any of his earlier works. It's a great performance in a hypnotic movie.
This movie is worth seeing because of its ethereal novelty and virtuoso performances by Turturro and Watson.
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on 27 March 2011
A good movie based on a novel by Vladimir Nabokov (written in 1930) about Alexander Luzhin, a Russian chess genius and borderline psychotic who suffers a mental breakdown during the world championship in Italy (not having read the book, I cannot say whether the movie is faithful to it). During the tournament Luzhin knows and falls in love with the beautiful Natalia, a fellow émigré Russian, who despite the fierce opposition of her family returns his attention, eventually agreeing to marry him. The main suspension of disbelief in the movie comes from this. Of course, the beautiful girl chooses shy sensitive guy over tough, macho rival is a staple of romantic comedies. But Luzhin, as played by John Turturro, goes beyond the shy and sensitive and into the downright bizarre and borderline autistic. He appears unkempt, absent minded, with dirty clothes. My experience is that women never fall for men like that, they might pity them, they might become friendly with them but they would never feel any sexual attraction to them. Of course, the movie suggests that one of the reasons Natalia agrees to marry Luzhin is not so much because she feels sexually attracted to him (there is a scene where they kiss that is terribly awkward) but to upset her domineering insufferable mother. Also being a chess grandmaster in the path to become the world champion helps, even if your personality is totally off putting.

The beautiful Italian settings helps the movie a lot. The movie is also bolstered by the fine performance of pretty Emily Watson (she of blue moist seducing eyes, very believable as a Slavic beauty) as Natalia. On the other hand, whether John Turturro's characterization of Luzhin is good is debatable. I think he makes the character too broad.
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A vulnerable man needs to overcome sabotage and face up to the medical opinion that to continue playing chess will kill him.

During a chess tournament where the socially awkward Sascha Luzhin meets a lady with whom he falls in love, we see extracts from his life which have led to this moment. Sascha may have been dismissed by many throughout his life as a lunatic, a retard - but Natalia is attracted by his sheer genuineness, his integrity and complete lack of desire to impress with shallow showmanship. The relationship makes for compulsive viewing as the audience immediately feel protective over the childlike Luzhin and I felt on edge in desperation for him (and the two) to be happy.

We understand that this is a vulnerable man, who was once a vulnerable boy who happened to find sanctuary in chess, and this enabled him to achieve a glory the like of which would perhaps have otherwise been out of his grasp. The introduction of his bitter "chess father" throws him off his game and he starts to struggle. But he isn't alone now and Natalia fires his passion and fuels his confidence. She is his only escape from a state of mind in which he fully immerses himself. It's difficult to make a game of chess gripping on film - but my heart was in my stomach at times and I was willing him on to win the chess tournament.

Both Tuturro and Emily Watson give very convincing performances, actually Tuturro reminded me of Hrithik Roshan's portrayal of a similar character in Indian Sci-Fi film Koi... Mil Gaya. Turturro is incredibly expressive, and though his character is often reluctant to talk - the face said it all and I was never left in any doubt as to what Luzhin was feeling.

In a nutshell: This film tenderly deals with issues of mental illness and how those afflicted can face prejudice and exploitation from those around them. This isn't a film about chess, it's the story of a beautiful character from childhood to man, and his unique state of mind.

Chess may have been his sanctuary, and it may have been his downfall - but it gave Luzhin a chance to shine.
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on 12 December 2002
Having read Vladimir Nabokov's novel "The Defence", on which this
film is based, many years ago, I was fascinated to see how the
director would rise to a very challenging task. I was not
disappointed: although the story is interpreted in a noticeably
different way, it becomes a moving and remarkably unsentimental
study of a strange, uniquely talented man and the young woman
who suddenly and inexplicably falls in love with him.
There are certain technical constraints. In the novel, Nabokov
spends a lot of time depicting Luzhin's internal states of mind.
The chess-related flights of fantasy have mostly been eliminated,
but John Turturro - who gives a magnificent performance throughout -
successfully conveys Luzhin's bumbling, inconsequential attempts
to comply with the social requirements of the situations he
encounters. Very occasionally, one of the actors reminds one of
a real chess player - at times Turturro, unshaven and distracted,
has overtones of Tal, and Fabio Sartor's suave Turati combines
Capablanca's elegance with flashes of Kasparov's self-assurance.
The chess specifics are, sadly, not very accurate. Even in the
1930s, the world championship was never decided by a single game
played between the winners of two sections of a tournament! Real
grandmasters do not usually slam their clocks hard enough to break
them, nor are they often surprised by snap checkmates in the
endgame (although it has happened). But these compromises can
be excused as artistic license, with the aim of making the game
more exciting for non-players.
Everything else is beautifully done - the period sets, clothes
and manners, the interplay of sporting dedication with business
ambition and even romance, burgeoning suddenly in the most
unexpected place and time. I would have been amazed to be told
that a rendering of "The Defence" would feature sex scenes, but
they are perfectly woven into the logic of the story. There is
a certain vagueness, too, that mirrors real life - at least as
seen by Nabokov. Natalia's mother, who seems dead set against
her beloved daughter having anything to do with "that" (as she
calls Luzhin after their first meeting), rallies round in time
for the wedding. And as for Valentinov, Luzhin's former manager
who unceremoniously dumped him when he went through a bad patch,
what does he really want now?
Like so many of Nabokov's tales, "The Luzhin Defence" hovers
ambiguously on the border between everyday reality and fantasy.
If you accept it on its own terms, though, it is an absorbing
experience.
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HALL OF FAMEon 26 October 2002
I have not read the book upon which this movie is based, so I had no expectations that needed to be met or dashed. Knowledge of chess is not required to enjoy this film, when explanations enhance a scene they are provided. John Turturro and Emily Watson are wonderful and the setting at Lake Como is gorgeous. The title, "The Luzhin Defence", is applicable not only to an endgame strategy devised, but also represents what the character of Luzhin employs every day of his life to survive.
Chess is a fabulously complex game that no player has ever claimed to have mastered. Brilliant champions like Kasparov explain their endless fascination with the game is precisely because it is a challenge that can never be met with finality. If you pick up any basic chess book, the possible directions that are available to the two players, especially at the game's start are measured exponentially. Great players must be able to predict a variety of futures as the result of any given move they or their opponent may choose. This is demonstrated with a bit of sleight of hand of the director during one match in the film to great effect.
Luzhin is a man who is shaped both by his genius and the dysfunctional family he is the product of. Chess simultaneously defines his life, offers him shelter from those around him, and leads him to an addiction to the game that starts as eccentric and progresses to destructive. This is not a story of yet another person of extraordinary talent who also is socially dysfunctional because of his genius. His childhood and his early life are what he must form a defence against. Chess becomes a scapegoat for all the problems he sees around him as a youth. He does not have talent; rather he sees the harm he appears to inflict by constantly defeating his father at the game. His mentor and coach become no more than the means by which he is exploited.
His relationship with Emily Watson's character is appropriate as she too is considered wildly unconventional by the standards of her parents, although primarily by her mother. She is also the target of constant criticism, her life a sequence of interferences by her mother, an overbearing anti-Semitic nuisance of a person.
The close of the film initially left me disappointed. However after letting a day pass it actually becomes poignant if you are willing to stretch a bit for it. Director Marleen Gorris does s very good job of portraying the story on the screen. How much justice she does the book, as I mentioned I can not say.
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on 22 December 2015
Superb film documenting the struggle between a love of chess and the impact of a new woman in your life.
Dramatic and enthralling although the pace can be a bit slow,
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on 17 March 2016
John Turturro at his very best - good performances all round , and skill at chess not required .
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on 22 May 2001
John Tuturro plays Luzhin, a brilliant chess player who suffers from intense stress when playing chess. Unlikly as this seems, Tuturro pulls this off with grace. Emily Watson plays the woman who falls in love and wants to marry him. The story is set against the international chess tournament, where Luzhin is challenged to the extreme of his capacity. The cast do a remarkable job, telling this remarkable story in an unpredictable film that makes a refreshing change from the hollywood mainstream.
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on 20 January 2015
Superb movie, loved it to pieces.
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on 18 March 2009
using an old masters move to pick up the girl
might not be a usual way to handle a woman
nice period piece but what did the bishop say
to the actress
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