This handsomely produced and skillfully directed period piece about a child chess master who grows into a kind of Quasimodo torn between his obsession for the game and his search for a deeper human reality should appeal to discriminating audiences, though commercial prospects may be limited by the central theme of chess.
Certainly, Hanchar has dramatized the links with the venerable game to the maximum. But what quickens the pace is the extraordinary performance of Denis Lavant as the tortured prodigy of humble origin. His histrionic tour de force will seem excessive to some and superb to others.
Set in 1828, most of the story unfolds in the elegant country mansion of a marquise who is obsessed with the arcane and almost mystical implications of chess and whose dream it is to host the yearly world chess championships in her sumptuous villa. She is even willing to sacrifice her daughter in marriage as a trophy. Max, the slightly unbalanced prodigy, is pitted in a series of three games against the haughty British world master. Hanchar weaves in subplots as the tension between the opposing players builds, and the intrigues thicken as Max lurches from moments of high insanity to reassuring confidence that he will win the match, helped by a servant girl and his mentor, a Protestant minister, who try to steady him.
Thanks to a tight script, superb thesping and top-notch technical credits, pic never slackens for a moment as the audience watches with fascination at what Max’s next quirky move, in life and on the chess board, will be. The playing of the games may be far removed from that of a real chess match, but they work well in building the drama.