The Luzhin Defence

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Chess players become champions by noticing patterns that emerge in the way people play. The moves may be different, but the patterns remain the same.

“The Luzhin Defence” is about a chess champion who notices the patterns of the game while falling victim to the patterns of life. Unfortunately, while the rules of chess are exact and precise, this movie only hints at its themes, leaving many elements frustratingly undeveloped.

The film takes place in Italy in the 1930s — a romantic setting indeed — at a world-class chess tournament. The man to beat is Alexandre Luzhin (John Turturro), an eccentric, slightly befuddled genius with a tortured past: His father committed adultery with his aunt, and his mother committed suicide.

Vacationing in Italy is Natalia Katkov (Emily Watson), a wealthy woman whose mother (Geraldine James) keeps trying to pimp her off on another wealthy layabout, Count Jean Stassard (Christopher Thompson). But Natalia is fascinated by the inscrutible chess player, and they fall into a muted, palatable kind of love.

Intrigue comes rather late in the film, with the arrival of Luzhin’s childhood chess instructor. Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), we come to learn, is intent on making Luzhin lose the current tournament, and it’s clear he has power to rattle the poor guy’s nerves.

The question, of course, is why Valentinov wants to ruin Luzhin after all these years. A reason is given — jealousy over his chess skills — but it’s a weak one, and it’s not issued with enough certainty to warrant all the effort Valentinov goes to. Luzhin’s chess epiphany, which should also have been a major revelation, turns out to be another dud. How about some real conflict between Natalia and her repressive mother? Or maybe some tension between Luzhin and his competitor? The film is a letdown, alas, almost squandering all the fine acting and lovely scenery.

C (; PG-13, some discreet sexuality, mature themes.)

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