Published Sep 01, 2000Although the thought of a movie about chess may seem as exciting as watching grass grow, Maureen Gorris's adaptation of Vladimir Nabakov's novel is an engaging piece of work about love and loss. The film stars John Turturro as Alexander Luzhin, the socially stunted Russian chess master, and Emily Watson as the lovely socialite Natalia he falls in love with. The story takes place in 1920s Italy at a world championship chess tournament, with flashbacks to Luzhin's youth in Russia. Turturro is outstanding in the role of the shabbily-dressed child-like genius. His ability to bring humour into an otherwise serious role showcases his range as an actor. His performance is like a cross between Charlie Chaplin and Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man. Turturro immerses himself in the role, scribbling chess moves in a tattered notebook, dancing by himself to music that plays in his head and absentmindedly dropping objects through the holes in his pockets. The chemistry between Turturro and Watson is one of the highlights of the film. From the moment Luzhin sees her he is genuinely smitten, so much so that he asks her to marry him without even knowing her name. She, in turn, is intrigued by his shambling manner and absolute honesty. Their burgeoning relationship causes her mother, played by Geraldine James, considerable distress. While having his first one on one with her mother, he makes an attempt at small talk, saying "Your daughter, she likes cooling beverages," poking fun at the pretension of high society folk without even realising it. Stuart Wilson plays Luzhin's former teacher and guardian who comes back into his life like a wolf in sheep's clothing, determined to break the will of his former charge and cause him to lose the tournament. His subtle portrayal of the unrepentantly evil father figure is a counterpoint to Turturro's manic characterisation of Luhzin. The film's style is another highlight. The locations in Italy and Hungary are elaborate and rich in historic detail. And don't be surprised if the costume design gets nominated for an Oscar. At times, the film is somewhat slow-paced and the flashbacks, though they help to develop Luzhin's complex character, get a little redundant. Gorris's filming of the chess scenes are surprisingly tension filled, helped to no end by Turturro's frantic Luzhin. Fans of period movies and chess will undoubtedly enjoy The Luzhin Defence. And John Turturros performance will appeal to everyone else.