Dir: Marleen Gorris. UK. 2000. 110mins.
Prod cos: Renaissance, ICE3. Co-prods: Lantia, Magic Media. US dist: Sony Picture Classics. UK dist: Entertainment Film Distribs. Int'l sales: Renaissance Films, tel: (44) 20 7287 5190. Exec prod: Jody Patton. Prods: Caroline Wood, Stephen Evans, Louis Becker, Philippe Guez. Scr: Peter Berry, based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov. DoP: Bernard Lutic. Prod des: Tony Burrough. Ed: Michael Reichwein. Mus: Alexandre Desplat. Main cast: John Turturro, Emily Watson, Geraldine James, Stuart Wilson, Christopher Thompson.
Based on an early Russian-language novel by Nabokov, The Luzhin Defence plays a fair, careful game that is satisfying rather than electric. With a world premiere in Edinburgh, it can expect further festival exposure prior to niche arthouse bookings, although it is unlikely to penetrate much beyond Gorris' established-but-limited audience.
Set in 1929, the main story unfolds on the banks of Lake Como in a swish hotel hosting a chess championship. One of the candidates is Luzhin (Turturro), an eccentric Russian grandmaster who - a series of flashbacks relates - became a child prodigy against the background of his parents' failing marriage. In adult life, the game for him has turned into a refuge from reality.
A way out of his damaging obsession is offered by Natalia (Watson), the daughter of impoverished emigres, also Russian, who are in town hoping to snare her a rich husband. Instead, the independent-minded young woman falls for the gentle, unworldly genius. However, he is inexorably drawn back to the game that threatens to destroy him, with the baleful help of Valentinov (Wilson), Luzhin's former teacher-manager who has turned against his protege.
Turturro is touching as the gauche Luzhin and, with Watson, succeeds in generating some offbeat romantic chemistry. The weak link is the villainous Valentinov, who seems more like a literary device (in the book, his malevolence could be explained as a figment of Luzhin's overheated, paranoid imagination) than a fully-rounded and motivated character. Also puzzling is the film-makers' decision to dilute the novel's tragic denouement with a mutedly-triumphant coda that remains unconvincing and will irritate viewers familiar with the original.
Gorris displays her usual deftness in interweaving different time strands (although the film might benefit from a slight nip-and-tuck), while the production milks maximum value from its contrasting locations, with Budapest serving as St Petersburg.