Underdeveloped supporting characters detract from elegant Nobokov adaptation about mad chess genius
John Turturro is all about idiosyncrasies in "The Luzhin Defence," an adaptation of a Vladimir Nobokov novel in which the actor plays a brilliant 1920s chess grand master whose strict, sometimes cruel upbringing has left him an erratic social misfit.
Deeply submerged in his character, he walks like he's forever in the middle of trying to prevent a stumble. Reflected in his busy eyes is the fact that his mind is compulsively darting and dashing about. And he's a man who lacks certain social graces -- like getting a girl's name before he proposes marriage to her.
Visiting a lakeside resort chateau in northern Italy for a championship chess tournament, Alexander Luzhin (Turturro) finds himself distracted by a beautiful Russian heiress named Natalia (Emily Watson), on holiday with her persnickety bluenosed parents. Unable to get her out of his mind after one brief encounter and not adept at social interaction, Luzhin approaches her out of the blue, while she's in the middle of playing tennis, to burst out his proposal.
Natalia is not as taken aback as one might think -- in part because she's apparently drawn to eccentrics (she practically sought him out for their first encounter), in part because his unhinged intelligence intrigues her, and perhaps in part because her parents will most certainly disapprove.
It does seem odd that a unmarried woman of Watson's age (34) would still be subject to such scrutiny and interference by her parents, even in 1929 -- and it's just this kind of naggingly questionable plot point that begins to unravel the tragic romance on which they embark.
Directed by Marleen Gorris ("Mrs. Dalloway," "Antonia's Line"), "The Luzhin Defence" is a grand, emotionally-charged period piece that appears to have everything going for it -- talented leads in dramatic performances, prestigious source material (the novel was one of Nobokov's pre-"Lolita" Russian language works), a rich sense of time and place, and a striking visual beauty. But the story's realization seems to be missing some important details.
The film spends a lot of time exploring Luzhin's childhood in Russia -- his mother's suicide relating to his father's adulterous relationship with his aunt, his stifled genius, his school truancy spent playing chess in local cafes, the maleficent mentor Valentinov (Stuart Wilson) who took Luzhin under his wing in order to exploit his gift, then dumped him unceremoniously when the boy's playing hit a slump.
But Natalia's psyche goes largely unexplored, leaving one to wonder exactly why she prefers the wildly unstable and disheveled Luzhin to a dashing Italian friend and suitor (Christopher Thompson) who pursues her as well.
The frequent interludes of the actual chess matches are always brief but quite effective, deftly portraying the pressure and intensity of championship chess while avoiding the uncinematic (and confusing) details of the actual strategy involved.
But the plot soon pivots on the almost cartoonish villainy of Valentinov who, after abandoning him 20 years before, turns up at this tournament to deliberately and methodically wreck Luzhin's concentration out of some inexplicably ruthless desire to see him fail.
A melodrama of borderline madness follows as Luzhin suffers a breakdown that tests his commitment to the game and to Natalia.
"The Luzhin Defence" is a passionately crafted picture, but it's hard to connect with some significant characters because their motivations go largely unexplored. Watson fleshes out Natalia admirably, but she doesn't have a whole lot to work with since her only significant character traits seem to be kindness and a less discriminatory attitude than her snooty parents. Her mother (Geraldine James) is almost too haughty to be believed, arrogantly pushing aside other guests at the resort's front desk and commenting that she stayed in her cabin on the train from home because "I can't believe the types they let roam free."
When Natalia introduces Luzhin to her, then leaves them alone, you can't help but wonder what she could be thinking. In fact, the parents almost have to be wholly unsympathetic for the audience to not see that they might have a point about this weird man not being right for their daughter.
Even Turturro seems a little too wrapped up in the mannerisms of his character at times. He never lacks credibility, but as a viewer you are always acutely aware that he is method acting with a capital "M."
"The Luzhin Defence" may capture some Masterpiece Theatre hearts, but too many questions and/or doubts linger in the air of most scenes to really get caught up in it.