Stale mate

Nabokov's Luzhin Defence loses cinematic opportunities

With books like Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov established himself as one of the greatest stylists of English prose of the 20th century. His native tongue, however, was Russian, and its in that language that he wrote his first books, including 1929's The Luzhin Defence. Perhaps even then he anticipated his English career, since "Luzhin" sounds like "losing" and makes a typically Nabokovian play on words.

Published in English simply as The Defense, The Luzhin Defence uses the game of chess to consider the interplay of genius, passion and madness. The film adaptation puts an improbable love story in the midst of an international chess tournament, but though it begins with many rich possibilities, it makes too many wrong moves.

A lavish lake resort in fascist Italy provides the meeting place of two protagonists. Natalia (Emily Watson) is an aristocratic Russian of marriageable age enjoying her first tastes of freedom while still bound to her parents (Geraldine James and Peter Blythe). She witnesses the arrival of Alexander Luzhin (John Turturro), a disheveled Russian chess master greeted as "maestro" by the tournament's organizers.

For all his brilliance and renown, Luzhin is so antisocial and immersed in his cerebral pursuit that he makes Turturro's Barton Fink look like the life of the party. Turturro makes him intriguingly unpredictable, frequently scribbling on a notebook yet prone to impromptu dance steps or losing belongings through a hole in his pocket. Initially the film is comedically compelling, as you never know what he'll do next.

Natalia finds him a charming puzzle when they meet and is taken aback when he abruptly proposes to her: "I want you to be my wife! I implore you to agree!" We're even more surprised when Natalia eventually agrees, even though they barely know each other. We get hints at her possible motives, such as her fondness for strays and eccentrics, but Watson can't help but make the decision seem arbitrary.

The Luzhin Defence cuts between the build-up to the tournament and flashbacks to Luzhin's privileged boyhood, in which his increased interest in chess and his parents' fraying marriage go hand-in-hand. But the film takes a dramatic downturn with the appearance of the sinister Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), Luzhin's former mentor. Valentinov exploited and abandoned him as a young chess prodigy and now seeks to wreck his chances at winning the tournament. Perhaps Valentinov's motives are better conveyed on the page, for here he seems both petty and melodramatic, lacking only a black cape and a handlebar mustache.

Marleen Gorris previously directed Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, another highly "literary" novel, and here she takes note of the film's subtle Nabokovian details, like a tennis game, some crystal chess pieces and the quality of light on water. She faces a challenge similar to Searching for Bobby Fischer in making simple chess matches into exciting cinema, and fortunately she doesn't overuse the giant chess-piece props outside the hotel, although a great many floors have checkerboard patterns.

But the film's more flamboyant gestures can seem coarse, as when Luzhin sees the faces of his relatives while under pressure during The Big Game. Natalia boosts Luzhin's confidence by dancing with him, then sleeping with him, and the subsequent montage, set to a Shostokovich waltz, intersperses checkmate victories and coital faces in a rather tacky fashion. The matter-of-fact presence of fascist black shirts might fit the period but has political implications you don't know what to do with.

The cast, from Natalia's matchmaking mother to various top-hatted factotums, all look and perform in ways that charmingly suit the films of the 1930s. Rather strangely, Natalia and her parents have English accents, while Luzhin speaks with an unplaceable continental lilt, even though they're all supposedly Russian.

By its end, The Luzhin Defence seeks to make a point about being overwhelmed by obsession and the expense of the pleasures of life and love. Turturro, Gorris and scripter Peter Berry succeed too well at conveying the chess master's mental instability. Luzhin ultimately seems so unbalanced that he can't be held responsible for his actions, and his climactic decision lacks weight as a thematic "choice." Intending to reveal the nature of genius, The Luzhin Defence instead finds itself dramatically in check, and can only shrug that it's a sad thing to be crazy.??