“I couldn’t stifle a giggle as I recalled the scene in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me in which Austin engages in a sex-charged game of chess with Ivana Humpalott and ends up choking on his bishop…”
While watching The Luzhin Defence, I couldn’t stifle a giggle as I recalled the scene in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me in which Austin engages in a sex-charged game of chess with Ivana Humpalott and ends up choking on his bishop. My titters weren’t appreciated by those sitting next to me – laughter isn’t exactly an appropriate response to The Luzhin Defence, an intriguing highbrow thriller in which chess is a matter as serious as life and death.
Based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov (best known as the author of “Lolita”), The Luzhin Defence is one of those intense chess movies that seem to assert all of life can be compared to one perfect match. Not surprisingly, the movie is as carefully structured as the high-stakes games within it. All of the pieces are in place: the unconventional fellow nobody understands, the aristocratic girl who forsakes a perfectly suitable beau for said fellow, the outraged mother who insists – absolutely insists – that such nonsense end immediately, and the mentor jealous of his prodigy’s talent.
John Turturro plays Alexander Luzhin, a genius of the Rain Man order and chess Grand Master who travels to Italy to compete in the 1929 World Championship tournament. Upon arriving at the beautiful lakeside resort where the competition is to take place, he spots Natalia (Emily Watson) and falls immediately in love. Inexplicably, she falls for him as well. But theirs is a hopeless romance; Luzhin is so consumed by chess that he can’t focus on anything else. Diverting his attention even further, Luzhin’s former teacher arrives with a sinister agenda that threatens to ruin Luzhin once and for all.
While many of the moves in this film will be obvious to any cinema Grand Master (or even novice), it does have a few clever gambits. In its favor is the beautiful Italian scenery, a luscious reminder of a gentler, more glamorous age. Its biggest weakness: Turturro’s ham-fisted performance. In an apparent bid for an Academy Award, he pulls out all the stops with his quirky-jerky savant schtick. Much better is Watson, who, in her understated approach, always seems to be hiding a delicious secret.
Perfectly calculated tactics lead to a final confrontation that could make or break Luzhin. Just when it appears the movie’s final move is certain, it pulls a tricky defense of its own, winning with a cunning maneuver as gratifying as it is unforeseen. Checkmate.