It’s disturbing that a movie adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s woeful tale of a Russian Chess grandmaster can be so trivialising. It makes entertainment out of an individual psychologically scarred by incestuous, suicidal, overbearing, and ultimately uncaring parents, a seductive aunt, and a manipulative, egotistical, self-serving teacher. Why do we care at all about this emotionally dysfunctional member of the preening class and his pampered society lover? Why do we accept the gratuitous anti-Semitic asides of a middle-class mother, and why do we find mildly amusing the antics of four Mussolini black shirts depicted briefly, for no apparent reason, as good Samaritans in the hills above Lake Como. Perhaps it’s because the elitist setting of the movie at the World Chess Championship is inspirational and uplifting. Unfortunately, the movie is not.
Writer Peter Berry’s adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1930 novel The Defense is extremely unsatisfactory. Under the direction of Marleen Gorris, The Luzhin Defence sumptuously depicts the North Italian landscape, the resplendent interiors, and the ruling classes of inter-war Europe. These images are part of the seduction of senses along with Alexandre Desplat’s melodramatic score. And the opulence is completed by a cast of actors eminently capable of immersing themselves in the psychological reality naturalised within the movie. All the production values of this visual jewel combine to create yet another European movie that, despite its inconsequence, could appeal to American audiences.
Yet, we need to ask why we should be remotely interested in the lives of these “special” people. Not least amongst the delights offered by this movie is the extremely strong cast. Emily Watson’s Natalia brilliantly resists her mother Vera’s (played superbly by Geraldine James) desire for a suitable marriage; turning her back on attractive young men and instead falling in love with the unsuitable Alexander Luzhin (John Turturro). Her perverse rejection of the eligible for the idiosyncratic no doubt appeals to the naive romantic in us all. And Turturro plays the eccentric Luzhin to perfection, never losing the character’s fragile grip on other people’s reality, that Luhzin does not know where he is, when outside the comforting confines of the game of chess. The plot centres on Luzhin’s lack of worldliness. This Russian Chess champion comes to Lake Como to play in the World Chess Championship. There he meets Natalia, who falls in love with him and spends the rest of the movie trying to protect him from himself, from the rigour of the championship, and from various individuals who try to destroy him. However, the heavy-handed sign posting provided by director Marleen Gorris helps neither performer. We do not need to see the inhibiting flashbacks of Luzhin’s father, mother, and aunt as he grapples with the formidable Italian grandmaster (Fabio Sartor).These images leave no room for the audience to engage on their own terms with the characters, either intellectually or emotionally.
In one sense, Luzhin is in the long line of simple characters beloved by cinema audiences. But while he has the makings of a Chaplin-like character, he can never be an endearing “simple” person, for he has a major cross to bear. He is a genius who cannot relate to the world outside of chess and, therefore, needs the defence of Natalia as Queen against the “real life” forces that oppose him. Foremost among these forces is his manipulative and utterly malevolent ex-teacher Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), a black knight who threatens Luzhin’s stability as he battles for the world crown. Valentinov exploited his pupil’s prodigious talent, dropped him when it looked as if the young man’s powers were waning, and has now returned to prevent him becoming world champion. Vera, the casual anti-Semitic, also attacks Luzhin. However, despite her intolerance, she and her successful financier husband (Peter Blythe) are good upper-middle-class parents. And so they reluctantly support their daughter when she proposes marriage to Luzhin as a way to protect him.
Support and dependency—or perhaps more correctly, the debilitating effects of support and dependency—are a major theme in the movie. Only Natalia’s love provides Luzhin any form of defence against such effects. This love also provides an opportunity for some very tastefully depicted extramarital sex. We must expect sex in an adaptation of a novel by the author of Lolita! But this is sex with a necessary narrative function. It is a way for Natalia to foster Luzhin’s dependency and allow her to create a reality with which he can cope. The dramatic thrust of the movie resides in the conflict between Natalia’s emotional defence of Luzhin and his desperate search for a defensive ploy in the climactic last game of the tournament.
The movie’s most dramatic battle is between Luzhin’s reciprocal love with Natalia and his destructive obsession with the game. Ultimately, the other characters are merely minor pieces. Does the queen save the king? Yes and no! The resolution provides an ambivalent answer to the question and, depending on your personal predilections, will prove acceptable or trite. For me, it was unsatisfactory. The romantic in me wanted much more. And the cynic in me didn’t want to watch yet another movie about the angst of the cultural classes, especially as it almost totally ignores the political and moral upheavals of 1930s Europe.
Like most popular films, The Luzhin Defence focuses on individuals and disregards the larger social picture. We can never be sure if Luzhin’s obsession with chess is because of a wish to escape from his overprotective father (who destroys his own marriage by having an affair with his wife’s sister) or because of a genuine desire to play the game. In either case, the film falls back on old paternalistic psychology, centred on the destructive effect of certain parent-child relationships. At the same time, it is also a form of escapism, dressed up in beautiful clothes and sparkling sets. As such, it places the audience in Luzhin’s situation. As he escapes into chess, so the audience escapes into a mythic past. It distances the audience from the reality that life is not capable of being resolved by “special” individuals. The ambiguous ending in which Natalia fulfills Luzhin’s quest almost hides these flaws, but, it cannot save the film from my verdict that it is entirely irrelevant.
However, do not be put off. The Luzhin Defence is worth watching, if only to wonder why so much creative energy, talent, and sensual delight should be invested in such an insubstantial affair. If you are American, you will probably also be interested to see how well the native New Yorker, Turturro, depicts a Russian obsessive. No doubt he was cast to make the movie more attractive to U.S. audiences. So keep an eye out: despite its complete lack of relevance, The Luzhin Defence may be saccharine enough, and so full of surface quality, that it could appeal to a mass audience.