By Rich Cline | June 3, 2001

Based on the Nabokov novel, “The Luzhin Defence” is a stylish 1920s-set film about love and chess. Sounds rather dull–and indeed the film is fairly muted throughout–but it’s actually a thoroughly engaging film with fascinating characters, tricky relationships and a very clever storyline.
Alexander Luzhin (Turturro) is a genius who can’t really cope with the world beyond the chess board. To him everything is a series of carefully constructed interrelationships, planned moves and manoeuvres. Everything else simply passes him by. And when he meets the lovely Natalia (Watson), he knows instantly that she’s the girl for him. Her parents (James and Blythe) are worried about Natalia hanging out with such a strange man, especially when the Italian villa they’re all staying in is crawling with eligible counts. But this is nothing compared to the conniving influence of Luzhin’s former mentor (Wilson), who for some reason is sabotaging Luzhin’s chances of winning the world championship.
The complex relationships between the characters mimic chess pieces in an adept, understated way that brings the film to life with real power, building steadily and solidly to a superb final sequence. Watson and Turturro deliver terrific lead performances–intelligent and moving. And Gorris directs with subtle wit and insight that gives meaning to the settings and situations, intriguingly weaving in flashbacks from Luzhin’s troubled childhood. This isn’t a big, slick period romance; it’s a small, smart little film that tells its story with style and grace … and makes you think too.

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