THE MADNESS OF OBSESSION - THE REDEMPTION OF LOVE
Gail Cooke | TX, USA | 08/10/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Confession time up front: I'm a Turturro fan. This intense, versatile actor has won me several times, most notably with "Barton Fink" (1991) and "Quiz Show" (1994). "The Luzhin Defence" simply corroborates past good judgment. Inspired by Vladlimir Nabokov's 1930s novel "The Defense," this is the story of Alexandre Luzhin (Turturro), an eccentric, preoccupied chess genius whose miserable childhood has left him bereft of what we might think of as normal relational skills. So engrossed is he in the game that he is incapable of carrying on a conversation or tending to life's everyday tasks. As a child of privilege in early 20th century St. Petersburg (we learn in flashbacks) he was gifted with a chess set by a beautiful aunt who was having a not very hidden affair with his father. To say that the child takes to the game is an understatement - he buries himself in it and soon becomes known as a child prodigy. After the death of his mother, Luzhin's father easily hands him over to Valentinov, a school master (Stuart Wilson) who promises to nurture the boy and tutor him in the ways of the chess world. Instead, the reptilian Valentinov deserts Luzhin and pops into his life again some years later when as an adult Luzhin is participating in a major chess tournament held at a luxurious resort on Italy's Lake Como. While villains can be difficult to portray, it seemed that at any moment Valentinov would mumble "heh, heh, heh," and twirl his moustache. His evil doings were as predictable as his take on the role. Nonetheless, it is at this tournament that Luzhin sets eyes on the luscious Russian expatriate Natalia Katkov (Emily Watson). He is smitten, and so is she. The maneuvering of her social climbing mother to pair Natalia with a handsome young French count (Christopher Thompson) come to naught. While some may wonder what Natalia sees in the bumbling, outre Luzhin, suspend rationales and enjoy their blossoming relationship as she brings love into his life for the first time. Watson is luminous in this role, and Turturro gives a star turn as the tortured virtuoso. Fabio Sartor is perfection as Luzhin's opponent for the chess championship. With lush scenery and elegant period costuming the film, as directed by Marleen Gorris, offers thoughtful insight into the madness of obsession and the redemptive power of love."
Anna Otto | Seattle, WA United States | 05/18/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Nabokov's tale of chess, love, and madness might have been challenging to bring to the big screen canvass, but apparently not so for Marlin Gorris. The chess figures come to life, the city hall where the chess championship is being played for. It seems a struggle between life and death itself for Alexander Luzhin, a Russian virtuoso whose life basically divides into three parts: the brief childhood before chess, then a long life after he learned to play, and finally a moment when he came to the resort in Italy and fell in love with his beautiful countrywoman, played here with gentleness and strength (a combination that only she could pull off) by Emily Watson. John Turturro and she share a chemistry that is hard not to sympathize with, and their plight to survive what seems an increasingly high-stakes game is admirable. Luzhin is obsessed with chess to the point approaching insanity; we see flashes of his childhood and youth that perhaps led to his rapidly worsening condition. He is a strange figure, eccentric and lovable. It's no surprise that Nataliya feels the need to rescue him from himself - he can barely take care of his clothes or health, spending most of his time rehearsing chess matches in his head and rarely aware of his surroundings. What doesn't help either of them is the appearance of a devious, jealous mentor from Alexander's past who feels the need to ruin his ex-prodigy's possible happiness or the first place in the tournament. Nataliya's family who is very much against this coupling is fun to watch - her mother and father provide some not so rare and very welcome moments of mirth in this sometimes dark film. Watching this story unfurl, one indeed comes to understand why behind every great man there stands a great woman.Without disclosing the ending, I will simply say that it stays with the viewer, and the entire experience is profound and touching. The best movie about chess I've seen, the best movie based on Nabokov that I've seen, one of the best movies I've watched in a long time. Fantastic. I can't recommend it enough."
Turturro and Watson "Shine"
Reviewer | 02/25/2002
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Obsession comes in many flavors, and exists for a variety of reasons; for some it may be nothing more than a compulsive disorder, but for others it may be an avenue of survival. Lack of nurturing, combined with an inability to negotiate even the simplest necessities of daily life or the basic social requirements, may compel even a genius to enthusiastically embrace that which provides a personal comfort zone. And in extreme cases, the object of that satisfaction may become a manifested obsession, driving that individual on until what began as a means of survival becomes the very impetus of his undoing, and as we discover in "The Luzhin Defence," directed by Marleen Gorris, a high level of intelligence will not insure a satisfactory resolution to the problem, and in fact, may actually exacerbate the situation. Obsession, it seems, has no prejudice or preference; moreover, it gives no quarter. At an Italian resort in the 1920's, Alexander Luzhin (John Turturro) is one of many who have gathered there for a chess tournament, the winner of which will be the World Champion. Luzhin is a Master of the game, but he is vulnerable in that chess has long since ceased to be a game to him; rather, it is his obsession, that one thing discovered in childhood that saw him though his total ineptness in seemingly all areas of life, and enabled him to cope with the subtle disenfranchisements of his immediate family. So Luzhin is a genius with an Achilles heel, a flaw which perhaps only one other person knows about and understands, and furthermore realizes can be exploited for his own personal gain at this very tournament. That man is Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), Luzhin's former mentor, who after an absence of some years has suddenly reappeared and made himself known to Luzhin. Valentinov is an unwelcomed, disconcerting presence to Luzhin, and once again life threatens to overwhelm him. Not only is he about to face a formidable opponent in the tournament, Turati (Fabio Sartor), against whom in a previous match he emerged with a draw after fourteen hours, but he is also attempting to resolve a new element in his life-- his feelings for a young woman he's just met at the resort, Natalia (Emily Watson). And, genius though he may be, dark clouds are gathering above him that just may push Luzhin even deeper into the obsession that has been the saving grace, as well the curse, of his entire life. To tell Luzhin's story, Gorris effectively uses flashbacks to gradually reveal the elements of his childhood that very quickly led to his obsession with chess. And as his background is established, it affords the insights that allow the audience to more fully understand who Luzhin is and how he got to this point in his life. For the scenes of his childhood, Gorris textures them with an appropriately dark atmosphere and a subtle sense of foreboding that carries on into, and underlies, the present, more pastoral setting of the resort. The transitions through which she weaves the past together with the present are nicely handled, and with the pace Gorris sets it makes for a riveting, yet unrushed presentation that works extremely well. She also underplays the menace produced by the presence of Valentinov, concentrating on the drama rather than the suspense, which ultimately serves to heighten the overall impact of the film, making Luzhin's tragedy all the more believable and unsettling. The single element that makes this film so memorable, however, is the affecting performance of John Turturro. For this film to work, Luzhin must be absolutely believable; one false or feigned moment would be disastrous, as it would take the viewer out of the story immediately. It doesn't happen, however, and the film does work, because the Luzhin Turturro creates is impeccably honest and true-to-life. He captures Luzhin's genius, as well as his inadequacies, and presents his character in terms that are exceptionally telling and very real. It's a performance equal to, if not surpassing, Geoffrey Rush's portrayal of David Helfgott in "Shine." And when you compare his work here with other characters he's created, from Sid Lidz in "Unstrung Heroes" to Pete in "O Brother Where Art Thou?" to Al Fountain in "Box of Moonlight," you realize what an incredible range Turturro has as an actor, and what a remarkable artist he truly is. As Natalia, Emily Watson is excellent, as well, turning in a fairly reserved performance through which she develops and presents her character quite nicely. Though she has to be somewhat outgoing to relate to Luzhin, Watson manages to do it in an introspective way that is entirely effective. Most importantly, because of the detail she brings to her performance, it makes her accelerated relationship with Luzhin believable and lends total credibility to the story. You have but to look into Watson's eyes to know that the feelings she's conveying are real. It's a terrific bit of work from a talented and gifted actor. The supporting cast includes Geraldine James (Vera), Christopher Thompson (Stassard), Peter Blythe (Ilya), Orla Brady (Anna), Mark Tandy (Luzhin's Father), Kelly Hunter (Luzhin's Mother), Alexander Hunting (Young Luzhin) and Luigi Petrucci (Santucci). Well crafted and delivered, "The Luzhin Defence" is an emotionally involving film, presented with a restrained compassion that evokes a sense of sorrow and perhaps a reflection upon man's inhumanity to man. We don't need a movie, of course, to tell us that there is cruelty in the world; but we are well served by the medium of the cinema when it reminds us of something we should never forget, inasmuch as we all have the ability to effect positive change, and to make a difference in the lives of those around us."
One of the most beautiful
Lawrence Miller | Pineville, NC United States | 05/20/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Visually. And emotionally. One of the most beautiful and rewarding films I've ever seen. Equal in quality and power to "In the Belly of an Architect." Man against himself. The value of love. Individuality in thought and courage. Style in losing (not saying by whom). Vladimir Nabokov created the original novel, Peter Berry wrote the screenplay (why are writers downplayed so much?), and Marlene Gorris directed. More credit yet to the cinematographer and to fine actors Emily Watson and John Turturro (he's good enough to deserve a slot on "The Sopranos"). An easy five stars."