Turturro, Watson Team Up for a Winning Nabokov Adaptation
Does genius excuse everything? Should the brilliant have to live up to everyday expectations? Or, does a genius secretly long for the ordinary world, which, of course, he or she can never truly join? These are only some of the provocative questions raised by The Luzhin Defence, a beguiling and handsome adaptation of The Defense, Vladimir Nabokov's dark, psychological novel set in the 1920s European chess world.
Director Marleen Gorris (of the Oscar-winning Antonia's Line) and writer Peter Berry rise to the challenges of bringing Nabokov's distinctive, multifaceted writing to the big screen and, despite some crucial alterations, they remain true to the tale's essence, an exploration of genius, madness, and love. Although stars Emily Watson and John Turturro are far better looking than Nabokov's unappetizing twosome, each actor's matchless individuality (and nontraditional attractiveness) bring a rich depth and tenderness to the story.
Turturro, known for playing off-center types, perfectly fills the scuffed shoes of Alexander Luzhin, a chess grand master immersed in a world of strategies and counterstrategies, who has just arrived at an Italian resort to compete in the world chess championship. Although Alex fits the "mad genius" stereotype--rumpled clothing, messy hair, inarticulate mutterings, unfocused gazes, endless smoking--Turturro imbues the character with a guilelessness that makes it believable that he would captivate well-to-do Russian Natalia Karkov (the ever-brilliant Watson).
Brought to Italy by her matchmaking, aristocratic mother, Vera (Geraldine James), the bored Natalia initially recoils from Alex's intensity and preoccupation with chess. (When Natalia asks Alex how long he's been playing chess, he tells her exactly, in days, hours, and minutes.) Yet his emotional nakedness comes to surprise and delight Natalia, prompting her own emotional abandon--to the dismay of her mother.
Flashbacks to Alex's turn-of-the-century childhood (shot in snow-covered Budapest) show not only his troubled home life, but the inability of his well-meaning father (Mark Tandy) to accept that his brilliant son will never be "normal." Significantly, it is Alex's lovely Aunt Anna (a spiritual forerunner to Natalia) who alone realizes and encourages Alex's skill at the chessboard.
Back in Italy, skulking darkly on the sidelines, is Alex's ruthless former mentor, Valentinov (a perfectly malevolent Stuart Wilson). Bitterly resentful of the success Alex gained after the two parted, Valentinov is determined to see the chess world crown a new king, preferably Italy's Turati (Fabio Sartor, who looks more like a mobster than a chess master). The mentor will stop at nothing to push his emotionally unstable former protégé over the edge.
Nabokov's vivid writing, while notoriously difficult to adapt, has nevertheless attracted plenty of filmmakers, including Adrian Lyne, Stanley Kubrick, Tony Richardson, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, all with varying degrees of success. Gorris and Berry's reworking of The Defense, set against a luxurious European resort with ample, beautiful period details, certainly lightens much of Nabokov's dark, psychological tone. But this is no mere romantic oversimplification. Gorris successfully and engagingly details not only Alex's tenuous hold on reality but the burden of genius that interferes with the pleasures of everyday life--and how close that genius lies to madness.
Despite Alex's amazing mental ability (which Gorris goes to some length to demonstrate), his emotional ticks and insecurities make him prone to flights of romantic hysteria and an easy mark for Valentinov's plotting. Alex's inability to extricate himself from all things chess makes him closer to a savant than a gifted player, and doom seems inevitable. Gorris and Berry choose to make Alex's neurosis more heartbreaking than bleak and, toward that end, lift Nabokov's gloomy finale.
Perhaps the filmmakers' canniest change is cosmetic. Watson and Turturro, while not Hollywood beauties, don't look much like Nabokov's physical descriptions of a large, lumbering Alex and a plain-Jane Natalia either. Yet it is their chemistry and charm that fuse Nabokov's despair and Gorris' romantic sensibilities to make The Luzhin Defence an unusual and welcome piece of art.