Actor's actor John Turturro scores at the chessboard in this romantic Nabokov adaptation. 

All The Right Moves

If this summer's deluge of computer-generated splash has you longing for a little cinematic substance, you might want to check out "The Luzhin Defence."

Paced to match the emotions of its characters, this tale of a former child chess prodigy moves with the same deliberateness of those who play the strategic sport. Based on a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, "The Luzhin Defence" offers up a bittersweet look at genius and compulsion.

It's the perfect antidote to this summer's big-bucks blockbusters, as coolly calculating and cerebral as the game at its heart.

Equally impressive is John Turturro's performance as the now grown-up chess-obsessed Alexander Luzhin. He delivers a haunting portrayal as the socially inept adult who's tortured by his childhood memories and his compulsive love for chess. As each more telling flashback unfolds, we are transfixed by the sadness in Turturro's dark eyes. We don't feel his pain; we see it.

No matter how you feel about chess — or about movies about it — you will not escape being touched by Turturro's character. Through sheer talent, the actor forces us to relate to Luzhin. Of the hundreds of performances I have seen this year, Turturro's Luzhin haunts me.

Similar in structure and story to "Shine," "The Luzhin Defence" begins quietly. We seem like voyeurs, eavesdropping on the well-to-do as they vacation at the Italian resort of Lake Como circa 1929, the site of the world chess championship.

Luzhin's chess-only world is changed by a chance encounter with Natalia (Emily Watson), a Russian aristocrat whose matchmaking mother (Geraldine James) has plans to marry her off to an eligible French count (Christopher Thompson).

Nearly dumbstruck by her voice and beauty, Luzhin nearly asks her to marry him on the spot. Intrigued by his dark intensity, she slowly warms to his open admiration. When on their second meeting he does propose, Natalia responds that perhaps he should learn her name first.

Her mother, of course, is outraged. First, Luzhin is a Jew. Second, his family has no claim to aristocracy. Much to her chagrin, her displeasure at her daughter's choice of ministering to yet another scruffy, lost stray only increases Natalia's determination. And though we root for these star-crossed lovers, we can't help but sense impending doom.

Lushly romantic with its period finery and aristocratic sheen, "The Luzhin Defence" takes a sinister turn with the arrival of Stuart Wilson as Luzhin's former coach. But director Marlene Gorris tips her hand once too often, straying far from Nabokov's scalpel-sharp characters and emotions. Gorris lets the movie drift from time to time, as if it were afloat on Lake Como. Slowly, we start to lose patience, wanting her to get back to the game at hand — either chess or matchmaking.

Turturro and Watson make a believable couple. She with her determined clear eyes and subtle, nontraditional beauty. We never question her attraction to Luzhin; we understand how his unabashed passion for chess leads to hope for similar moves in the game of love. Both Turturro and Watson excel at playing outsiders, characters who long to be a part of the crowd, but whose differences keep them from acceptance.

Encompassing the best of "Searching for Bobby Fisher" and "Rain Man," Gorris succeeds more than she fails with "The Luzhin Defence." When she's showing us the hyperspeed, mental moves Luzhin envisions when looking at a chessboard, we are mesmerized. Whether you play the game or not, when "The Luzhin Defence" ends, you'll find yourself wanting more.

Give us more chess!?! When was the last time you begged a movie to do that?


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