You can count on filmmakers falling for socially awkward geniuses, come rain or shine. (Make that Rain Man or Shine.) So we shouldn't be surprised to meet Alexander Ivanovich Luzhin, the hero of Vladimir Nabokov's early, Russian-language novel The Defence. As portrayed by John Turturro in Dutch director Marleen Gorris' new screen adaptation, The Luzhin Defence, Luzhin is a chess phenom who, when he's not in the middle of a game ' or, for that matter, 20 games, which he plays all at once, while blindfolded ' is barely able to pour himself a glass of water. Critics have mentioned the Chaplinesque lilt that Turturro has added to his step in order to play this bumbling, mumbling fool. Personally, I would go with the Marx brothers ' Groucho and Harpo, anyway. Turturro's Luzhin is like Harpo Marx...without the laughs.
Strange that Gorris and scriptwriter Peter Berry would leave out Nabokov's humor, which he dusted over the novel like so many pinches of strychnine. But it seems in keeping with their beefing up the role of Natalia, who wasn't even allowed the benefit of a first name in the book but now has become a full partner in Luzhin's defense against those who would confine him to a chessboard. Wooed by a count, Emily Watson's Natalia prefers Luzhin, of all people, and the movie has to bend the book like a pretzel to get us to believe in the relationship. But believe we do, thanks in part to fine acting by Turturro, Watson and Stuart Wilson as Luzhin's crooked manager, Valentinov. And to some gorgeous interiors and exteriors found in Budapest and Italy's Lake Como. Whatever she lacks, Gorris has exquisite taste.
Nabokov would have loved those interiors, never having gotten over his childhood in imperial Russia. And Gorris seems to love them too, flashing back to Luzhin's own Russian childhood over and over again. She beautifully captures Luzhin's pre-chess years, when he was a fearful child looking for somewhere to hide. But what about the chess years? Where's that sense, in Nabokov's words, of a life that's "a kind of monstrous game on a spectral, wobbly and endlessly disintegrating board"? Compared to that, The Luzhin Defence, though always a pleasure to watch, is like an Oliver Sacks case study ' The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Queen.