The Luzhin Defence
The Good: Acting, Characters, Cinematography
The Bad: Slow plot, Pacing issues
The Basics: Despite a dreadful first half in terms of pacing and plot, this chess-heavy film is worth watching for the successes in acting and character too rare in today's films.
The Luzhin Defence is one of those artsy films that does a great job a looking good, having excellent actors playing engaging characters, but loses itself in backstory to the point that by the time the tale becomes interesting, the viewer has way too much work to do to actually care.
Apparently based on a novel by Nabokov (the same who wrote Lolita for those of you keeping track), The Luzhin Defence is concerned with a chess master named Luzhin who is attending the world championship chess match. Winning the series of matches at this chess match will make him world champion, grand master or whatever it's called in chess; this is the World Series of chess.
Luzhin, loosely put, is a loose cannon. He's a whiz at chess, socially inept and easily confused when forced into a context other than a chess match. Upon his meeting Natalia, a young woman whose mother is determined to marry her off, he proposes before asking her name. He's a bit of a crackpot and she's very straightlaced, but she's game for having an eccentric in her life and the two quickly pair up.
If only that were all the film concerned itself with. The chess match and the romance could be sophisticatedly juggled and well arranged. Unfortunately, the film quickly dives into a series of flashbacks concerning Luzhin, his parents and his aunt and his mentor, Valentinov, in an attempt to explain why Luzhin is the way he is. Unfortunately, it ends up confusing the matter entirely and neither story is as well-developed as it could and should be.
Valentinov reappears at the World Chess Championship, entering like the Evil Chess Master to act as a hex for Luzhin. So the film degenerates into a well-paced war between Natalia and Valentinov for control of the unstable Luzhin.
It's hard to write an interesting review of this film because it's not a terribly interesting film. It succeeds in looking incredible. The sets are wonderful, the costumes are nice and the film is filled with nice shots, intriguing angles, you name it. The film has interesting characters; Luzhin and Natalia are interesting people, their motivations make sense. The acting is superlative: John Turturro as Luzhin, Emily Watson as Natalia and Stuart Wilson as Valentinov make up an amazing triumvirate of powerful acting. They flesh out all the flaws in the writing, they make the dull, drops-from-a-leaking-sink pace almost bearable.
Almost. The first half of the film is carried entirely by the quality of the acting and the intrigue of the characters; the plot drags, the flashbacks are tired and uninspired. The second half of the film is enough to make the viewer want to wake up the sleeping audience, elbow your friend and when they ask "Is it still that dreadful movie?" lie and say, "No, it's an entirely different one." In some ways it is; it is focused, precise, interesting, and it rises quickly to a climax.
I'm recommending this film because in the final analysis, it's not a waste of time. It's interesting, it has its moments; unfortunately, they all come in the last half.
For other quirky films or films with offbeat characters, please check out my reviews of:
The Men Who Stare At Goats
Charlie Wilson's War
For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2010, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.