An obsessive Russian chess master is struck by Eros’ arrow beside Lake Como in “The Luzhin Defence,” a smoothly made period romancer that’s elevated by strong playing from its whole cast, led by John Turturro and Emily Watson as the starstruck lovers. Though not big enough in scope or mainstream enough in appeal to garner a wide audience, pic has enough small felicities and well-drawn characters to engage maturer audiences for such fare, with subsequent cable and TV sales a given.
In every respect this is a slicker piece of work than director Marleen Gorris’ previous costumer, “Mrs. Dalloway.” Production values are lusher, casting is more even, editing tighter and the fine score by Alexandre Desplat gently cradles the story to a moving close. Peter Berry’s script, adapting a lesser-known Russian-lingo novel by Vladimir Nabokov, is admirably economical and light of touch, balancing the story’s twin poles (chess and love) with skill.
Though the novel was set among a group of Russian emigres, no mention is made of this in regard to Watson’s character and her family. As a result, and with the casting of Brits in most of the major roles (excepting Turturro, who affects a vague, not especially Russo accent), the film in fact plays more like an English-in-fascist-Italy picture, though without the usual panorama of eccentric personalities the genre is often heir to (“Tea With Mussolini”). As a substitute, Nabokov’s off-center approach to human emotions peppers the story in a satisfying way.
From the very start, the picture maintains a dramatic balance between the two leads, as Natalia (Watson), who’s traveled ahead, meets her mother, Vera (Geraldine James), at the station and the two take a launch to their ritzy lakeside hotel. On the same train, his nose buried in his notebook, is Alexander Luzhin (Turturro), who’s come to Como for the 1929 World Chess Championship, a crucial test of his talented but uneven career.
Snooty Vera thinks it’s time the independent Natalia settled down, and tries to hook her up with a friendly young French count, Jean (Christopher Thompson). However, Natalia, who has a history of being drawn to stray animals and eccentrics, bumps into the shambling, unkempt Luzhin (Turturro) and is immediately fascinated.
The film requires a major leap of faith from the viewer to believe that these two utterly different people could be attracted to each other. But with both thesps playing their early scenes with an engaging lightness, and with the quiet independence and rebelliousness of Watson’s character already sketched, it’s a leap one is prepared to take.
When Luzhin suddenly blurts out a proposal of marriage to her a day or so later, Natalia neither accepts nor turns him down. She does, however, first point out that he may like to know her name.
Details about Luzhin are laid in via a series of flashbacks that run parallel to the main action. The lonely only child of distanced parents (Mark Tandy, Kelly Hunter, etching much in limited screen time), he was first introduced to chess by his young aunt (Orla Brady, also good), with whom his weak father was in fact having an affair. A poor achiever at school, Luzhin was subsequently handed over to chess entrepreneur Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), who first exploited him and then dumped him during an unlucky period.
As Luzhin’s main rival for the championship, Turati (Fabio Sartor), arrives on the scene, the awkward love affair between Luzhin and Natalia initially loosens up the tightly wound Russian. Natalia protects him like a wounded puppy against the opposition of her parents, but then Valentinov appears from the past, forcing a confrontation in Luzhin’s hair-trigger mind between love and chess.
Evincing a slow-growing chemistry, Turturro and Watson manage the difficult task of making the odd-couple relationship work on screen. Without slipping into caricature, Turturro makes the shambolic, almost extraterrestrial Luzhin a sympathetic, often funny figure, and Watson, more than ever recalling a young Sarah Miles, makes Natalia a tower of quiet strength, saying more with a raised eyebrow or smile than anything in the script.
Cast is tops down the line, especially Wilson as Luzhin’s smiling, evil nemesis. James is solid as Natalia’s sobbish but loving mom, and Peter Blythe a neat counterweight as her more cool-headed husband. As Luzhin’s opponent, Sartor brings a dignity to the role that pays off in the pic’s moving coda with Watson.
Italian exteriors (Como, Bergamo) dovetail neatly with interiors lensed in Hungary (repping both Russia and Italy), and Bernard Lutic’s photography is generally well lit. However, processing on print caught was not always entirely attractive, with the color in some scenes too saturated.