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With: Emily Watson, John Turturro, Geraldine James, Stuart Wilson, Christopher Thompson
Written by: Peter Berry, based on the novel "The Defense" by Vladimir Nabokov
Directed by: Marleen Gorris
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sensuality and thematic elements
Running Time: 109
Date: 08/21/2000

The Luzhin Defence (2001)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Chess Than Zero

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One thing that drives me crazy about the movies is how much people love their stiff, stuffy literary adaptations. People assume that if it's based on a classic of literature rather than, say, a comic book, it must automatically be better. Filmmakers have always made these literary films, but lately they've solidified into a dreary, icy formula, and we can blame Merchant-Ivory for most of them. Why can't someone just come out and say, "This is bor-ing?"

The Luzhin Defence, the latest off the assembly line, is bor-ing. It's based on the Vladimir Nabokov novel The Defense, and it takes every tentative, polite step to make sure that the "essence" of the written word remains intact (lest it upset the novel's fans). Yet during this process, all the life and warmth and humor gets sucked out. The Nabokov I'm familiar with can be wickedly funny, yet The Luzhin Defence offers little humor.

John Turturro stars as Luzhin, the half-mad, half-genius chess master, and Emily Watson plays the woman who loves him. They meet at some elegant resort, the kind we usually get in these movies, where Luzhin is competing in a chess tournament against the world's other top chess champion. But at the same time, his old (evil, of course) mentor (Stuart Wilson) comes back into his life to make things unpleasant for him.

Excellent actor though he is, Turturro was probably the wrong choice for Luzhin. He goes a little too far in the madness department, muttering to himself and spinning circles in the rain while the camera watches from a discreet distance, and twirly music bleats at us from the soundtrack. Then again, perhaps it's not Turturro's fault. Nothing in the movie suggests that director Marleen Gorris (Antonia's Line and Mrs. Dalloway) knows how to put this story together, and she probably let Turturro get out of hand. The phony-looking yellow nicotine stains on his fingertips and his artfully rumpled clothing, straight from wardrobe, offer evidence of this.

Watson is marvelous, on the other hand, though she has nothing to do but care for the poor, mad chess man. The movie gives her an expository backstory explaining that she used to care for stray animals and outcasts, thereby excusing her attraction to Luzhin. The movie's final scene, however, in which she sits down to a chess game herself, briefly perked me up after more than an hour of wincing and rolling my eyes.

Despite this final moment, Gorris fails to realize that she might have cooked up some suspense with the chess games themselves. She photographs them as if they were mere props: The camera skips over them only to set the mood, as if they were stained-glass windows. I couldn't help thinking of another excellent chess movie called Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), which mined the maximum cinematic potential from of the game.

I also couldn't help thinking of two more Nabokov adaptations, Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Despair (1978), both of which overflow with passion and wit, perhaps because they weren't made in strict adherence to the Merchant-Ivory mold. If Gorris and her crew are going to make a movie, why not cut loose and really make a movie?

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