Set in the late 1920s, The Luzhin Defence tells the story of a shambling, unworldly chess Grand Master who arrives in the Italian Lakes to play the match of his life and unexpectedly finds the love of his life. Discovering his prodigious talent in boyhood overshadowed by his parents' failing marriage, Luzhin's lyrical passion for chess has become his refuge and rendered the real world a phantom. Already matched up by her family to the very suitable Comte de Stassard, when Natalia meets Luzhin, she is drawn to the erratic genius and offers him a glimpse outside of his chess obsession. But it is a world he is not equipped to deal with and his two worlds collide to tragic effect.Written by
from "Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 2"
Composed by Dmitri Shostakovich (as Dimitri Shostakovich)
Performed by Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest (as Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra)
Conducted by Riccardo Chailly
By permission of Boosey & Hawkes Licensing
Courtesy of Decca Record Label Ltd.
Under license from Universal Special Markets
(p) 1992 Decca Records See more »
Remarkable Performance By John Turturro
Obsession comes in many flavors, and exists for a variety of reasons; for some it may be nothing more than a compulsive disorder, but for others it may be an avenue of survival. Lack of nurturing, combined with an inability to negotiate even the simplest necessities of daily life or the basic social requirements, may compel even a genius to enthusiastically embrace that which provides a personal comfort zone. And in extreme cases, the object of that satisfaction may become a manifested obsession, driving that individual on until what began as a means of survival becomes the very impetus of his undoing, and as we discover in `The Luzhin Defence,' directed by Marleen Gorris, a high level of intelligence will not insure a satisfactory resolution to the problem, and in fact, may actually exacerbate the situation. Obsession, it seems, has no prejudice or preference; moreover, it gives no quarter.
At an Italian resort in the 1920's, Alexander Luzhin (John Turturro) is one of many who have gathered there for a chess tournament, the winner of which will be the World Champion. Luzhin is a Master of the game, but he is vulnerable in that chess has long since ceased to be a game to him; rather, it is his obsession, that one thing discovered in childhood that saw him though his total ineptness in seemingly all areas of life, and enabled him to cope with the subtle disenfranchisements of his immediate family. So Luzhin is a genius with an Achilles heel, a flaw which perhaps only one other person knows about and understands, and furthermore realizes can be exploited for his own personal gain at this very tournament. That man is Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), Luzhin's former mentor, who after an absence of some years has suddenly reappeared and made himself known to Luzhin.
Valentinov is an unwelcomed, disconcerting presence to Luzhin, and once again life threatens to overwhelm him. Not only is he about to face a formidable opponent in the tournament, Turati (Fabio Sartor), against whom in a previous match he emerged with a draw after fourteen hours, but he is also attempting to resolve a new element in his life-- his feelings for a young woman he's just met at the resort, Natalia (Emily Watson). And, genius though he may be, dark clouds are gathering above him that just may push Luzhin even deeper into the obsession that has been the saving grace, as well the curse, of his entire life.
To tell Luzhin's story, Gorris effectively uses flashbacks to gradually reveal the elements of his childhood that very quickly led to his obsession with chess. And as his background is established, it affords the insights that allow the audience to more fully understand who Luzhin is and how he got to this point in his life. For the scenes of his childhood, Gorris textures them with an appropriately dark atmosphere and a subtle sense of foreboding that carries on into, and underlies, the present, more pastoral setting of the resort. The transitions through which she weaves the past together with the present are nicely handled, and with the pace Gorris sets it makes for a riveting, yet unrushed presentation that works extremely well. She also underplays the menace produced by the presence of Valentinov, concentrating on the drama rather than the suspense, which ultimately serves to heighten the overall impact of the film, making Luzhin's tragedy all the more believable and unsettling.
The single element that makes this film so memorable, however, is the affecting performance of John Turturro. For this film to work, Luzhin must be absolutely believable; one false or feigned moment would be disastrous, as it would take the viewer out of the story immediately. It doesn't happen, however, and the film does work, because the Luzhin Turturro creates is impeccably honest and true-to-life. He captures Luzhin's genius, as well as his inadequacies, and presents his character in terms that are exceptionally telling and very real. It's a performance equal to, if not surpassing, Geoffrey Rush's portrayal of David Helfgott in `Shine.' And when you compare his work here with other characters he's created, from Sid Lidz in `Unstrung Heroes' to Pete in `O Brother Where Art Thou?' to Al Fountain in `Box of Moonlight,' you realize what an incredible range Turturro has as an actor, and what a remarkable artist he truly is.
As Natalia, Emily Watson is excellent, as well, turning in a fairly reserved performance through which she develops and presents her character quite nicely. Though she has to be somewhat outgoing to relate to Luzhin, Watson manages to do it in an introspective way that is entirely effective. Most importantly, because of the detail she brings to her performance, it makes her accelerated relationship with Luzhin believable and lends total credibility to the story. You have but to look into Watson's eyes to know that the feelings she's conveying are real. It's a terrific bit of work from a talented and gifted actor.
The supporting cast includes Geraldine James (Vera), Christopher Thompson (Stassard), Peter Blythe (Ilya), Orla Brady (Anna), Mark Tandy (Luzhin's Father), Kelly Hunter (Luzhin's Mother), Alexander Hunting (Young Luzhin) and Luigi Petrucci (Santucci). Well crafted and delivered, `The Luzhin Defence' is an emotionally involving film, presented with a restrained compassion that evokes a sense of sorrow and perhaps a reflection upon man's inhumanity to man. We don't need a movie, of course, to tell us that there is cruelty in the world; but we are well served by the medium of the cinema when it reminds us of something we should never forget, inasmuch as we all have the ability to effect positive change, and to make a difference in the lives of those around us. I rate this one 9/10.
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