February 23, 2024

THE LUZHIN DEFENCE: An Enjoyable Letdown

2000 / 109 min
Available at www.MovieZyng.com
Review by Stinky the Destroyer😺

Over the past year or so, I’ve become something of a belated fan of Dutch director Marleen Gorris, having the opportunity to review some of her films on Blu-ray. Though I have yet to check out her most renowned work, Antonia’s Line, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, I’m sure I’ll get around to it eventually.

But a lot of her earlier movies are pretty great. 1982’s A Question of Silence, was an incendiary debut about three women who are total strangers that impulsively team up to murder a man they don’t know. Broken Mirrors, juggles two concurrent storylines, the bleak daily life in a brothel and a serial killer who imprisons women and then starves them to death. I think The Last Island might be my favorite because Gorris incorporates two of my favorite genres - disaster and survival.

The common threads between these provocative films are themes of female empowerment weaved into the narratives, which aren’t prevalent in The Luzhin Defence. Since she didn’t actually write this one, perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised. This period drama might also be the closest Gorris has ever come to making a mainstream film. In a way, that’s kinda disappointing. A big part of what made her other movies compelling (aside from some incendiary social commentary) was the sense that Gorris herself was personally invested in her characters (the female ones, in particular). 

Sasha's subtle response to Turati's last move.
Not that The Luzhin Defence isn’t a good film. It’s a perfectly enjoyable - and beautifully shot - story of eccentric, obsessive chess wizard Aleksandr ‘Sasha’ Luzhin (John Turturro), who arrives in Italy for a championship tournament, which is expected to be a showdown between him and rival Salvadore Turati (Fabio Sartor). Also in attendance is fellow Russian Natalia Katkov (Emily Watson) and her doting mother (Geraldine James), who’s bent on hooking her up with a respectable suitor. Instead, she and Luzhin fall in love (quite quickly, actually), much to Mom’s chagrin.

Complicating matters is the arrival of Leo Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), Luzhin’s former mentor who plans to exploit Luzhin’s weaknesses and insecurities in order to give Turati an advantage. The reason for this particular conflict is depicted in numerous flashbacks of Luzhin as a young prodigy, as is the tumultuous relationship between his parents.

The performances are excellent, though none of the primary cast are really stretching themselves here. We’re used to seeing Turturro as an oddball and Watson in period dramas. As for Wilson…I don't recall anything I’ve seen where he wasn’t a bad guy, though he’s especially cold-blooded and hateful in this one. 

For the most part, the story is engaging, with nice moments of drama, levity, romance and conflict. Aside from the somewhat surprising climax, though, the narrative itself generally treads pretty familiar ground. It’s an enjoyable, ultimately poignant journey, but unlike some of Gorris’ earlier films, there isn’t a lot to ponder afterward. It kinda feels like she was a director-for-hire here.



AUDIO COMMENTARY - By director Marleen Gorris.


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