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With her early feminist thrillers such as A Question Of Silence and Broken Mirrors, Dutch director Marleen Gorris developed a reputation as a firebrand film-maker. However, since the Oscar-winning Antonia's Line, she seems to have been heading towards middle-aged respectability, plumping for literary adaptations (Mrs Dalloway) and now this European co-production. Based on Vladimir Nabokov's novel, the title refers to a series of moves that the grand-master Luzhin has to create at a crucial moment in his duel with the Italian Turati for the world title.
One of the film's strengths is that it allows us to understand the depth of the central character's obsession with chess and why he becomes so romantically infatuated with Natalia. The opening tunnel-bound shot foreshadows this blinkered vision, while Gorris also uses a series of chilly flashbacks to tell us about his lonely childhood and the way his chess-playing ability was exploited by his mentor Valentinov.
Gorris adroitly handles the pic's shifting moods. There are the early passages of light comedy in the picturesque lakeside setting, with Natalia's mother Vera (Geraldine James) struggling to match her daughter to a rich suitor. And then there's the liberating happiness briefly shared by the lovers, which is replaced by something far darker, as we realise the extent of Luzhin's addiction to the game.
Despite veering towards the tragic, The Luzhin Defence's emotional impact feels muted. Regardless, the two leads produce engaging turns: John Turturro captures Luzhin's absent-minded nai¨vety and appealing spontaneity, while Emily Watson, with her rich expression, brings impressive poise and vivacity to Natalia.
This Nabokov adaptation makes for a professional yet restrained film from director Marleen Gorris. A study in obsession and doomed love, its strengths lie in the fine performances of Turturro and Watson and the polished cinematography.