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Luzhin Defence, The

Reviewed By Thom
Posted 05/08/01 06:56:23

"Romantic and tragic suspenseful period piece"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

A world chess tournament brings the obscure genius Alexander Luzhin to Italy where he will play the game of his life. The chess tournament sets the stage to wander backwards in Alexander's life long passion for chess and the machinations that continually forced him to make a move or be checkmated.

The film is based on a Nabokov novel of the same title. Set in 1920 in the lakes region of Italy, The Luzhin Defence is both a costume period piece and a gripping tale. Unbelievable circumstances have haunted Alexander his entire life and he can't shake the ghosts of his past. The Luzhin Defence is his final masterstroke to undo all that had been done to him. He finally meets a woman he can love and he flashes back to a time when he was learning to play chess. "The Queen is the most powerful piece on the board. She protects the King.", his aunt tells him.

Since the film winds backwards from the present to the past, to talk much about the film is to ruin the Hitchcockian structure of the audience receiving priveleged information as time goes by until the end of the film when the final scene brings the past and the present together in an emotional climax.

The Luzhin Defense is romantic and tragic, lovely and disarming. I was completely subsumed by the emotional intensity of the action and the story. And any story with an obscure genius as plaything of a merciless world has already done all the work it needs to get my attention.

I loved about Alexander his outsider status. His ill-fitting, unfashionable clothes and lack of manners made him unfit for the society that worshipped him. Even though he came from an aristocratic Russian family, his breeding was no small consolotion for his lack of social grace so important to "society". When he falls in love with Natalia (Emily Watson - Angela's Ashes), and she ultimately accepts his advances, her mother is horrified. But Natalia, unlike many women of the time, is self-willed, independant and is less concerned with propriety than with being true to herself. "The Queen is the most powerful piece on the board." Alexander finds his queen and in the last scene, she defends him well.

The Luzhin Defense was released by Rennaissance Films (founded in part by Kenneth Branaugh who has since left the company) in cooperation with Clear Blue Sky Productions, owned by Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft. I guess after Steve Jobs bought Pixar, all the other boys on the silicon block had to get a production company also. The Luzhin Defence is the first film made under a three year deal with Clear Blue Sky. Human Traffic, a lauded, British film that many people compared to Groove was the first film Rennaissance picked up for international distribution. It did very well here in the US. With these successes in pocket and the solid backing of Clear Blue Sky, Rennaissance may continue to produce the lush, detailed and idiosyncratic films it is becoming known for.

This is the kind of film Helena Bonham Carter would have starred in if it were made 10 years ago. It is a gorgeous period piece with a romantic subplot and an engaging lead male. Top notch, experienced and recognized actors fill out the cast and the unravelling of events keeps the story interesting and intriguing. No detail was spared for the sheer spectacle of the film and the setting instead of trying to make up for the story or the actors lack, does what setting should do, it falls into the background so we can focus on the characters

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