When it comes to chess prodigies, Alexander Luzhin (John Turturro) should serve as a cautionary tale. As a child in Russia, he functioned as an unwitting pawn in his parents’ psychological warfare. And that was before his gift for chess was discovered and he was placed in the care of the sinister Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), who would become his coach, promoter and surrogate parent, one whose love depended on how often the young Alexander won his matches.
Director Marleen Gorris (Antonia’s Line) deftly inserts key moments from Alexander’s childhood throughout The Luzhin Defence, ably demonstrating how a boy obsessed with chess could become the shambling recluse who surfaces at the 1929 world championship tournament. She’s also effective at showing the oddly touching attraction which blooms between Luzhin, a man who lives primarily in his head, and Natalia (Emily Watson), a Russian émigré whose actions are motivated by her heart, after they meet at a lavish hotel on Italy’s idyllic Lake Como.
As Gorris showed with Mrs. Dalloway, she has a flair for literary adaptations and period pieces, an ability to dive past the lovely, well-appointed surface of her characters’ lives to the submerged traumas and frustrations which drive their actions. The Luzhin Defence is a beautifully crafted, unconventional romance between a man hungry for unconditional love and acceptance and a woman who needs to be needed, and devotes herself to bringing this genius a taste of a normal life as a way to give her own pleasantly aimless existence some purpose.
What’s missing in screenwriter Peter Berry’s adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel is the inner life of Luzhin, particularly the way in which chess — with its complex, intricate logic and mathematical precision — seems to form the very pattern of his DNA. In one key moment, Gorris has the pieces on a chessboard moving independently, as Alexander sees a pivotal match unfold in his mind’s eye. The tragedy is that Luzhin can’t apply this gift for strategy to his everyday life, where the moves of the players aren’t so easy to see in advance.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple, W. of Telegraph). Call 248-542-0180.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.