Bishop to knight and rook to queen,
As pawns patrol the ranks and files.
Spectators gawk as masters preen
And intellects complete their trials.
Obsession is a healthy thing
While meditating o’er a board,
But once you’ve captured every king,
You’ll find the game of life ignored.
MPAA rating: PG-13
There are plenty of movies about unique contests: spelling bees, dancing competitions, even ice sculpting, and in the case of The Luzhin Defense, a chess competition. Based off a book by Vladimir Nabokov, the film shows how unexpectedly intense a seemingly “boring” game like chess can be. John Turturro plays Aleksandr Luzhin, a chess prodigy with clear mental issues. He’s a strategic genius, but years of pressure to prove his brilliance have left him fragile and antisocial. At one fateful contest in Italy, Luzhin encounters his greatest fear in his manipulative former mentor (Stuart Wilson), as well as his greatest love in Natalia Katkov (Emily Watson).
Turturro is quite good as the troubled mastermind, though his personal eccentricities and obsessive tendencies make one wonder what Watson’s character sees in him. Years before her stern motherly roles in War Horse and The Book Thief, Watson manages to outshine Turturro’s attention-grabbing oddness with a performance that sells the unlikely attraction between them and makes it that much more bittersweet. While good overall, The Luzhin Defense is ultimately a less inspiring version of A Beautiful Mind, which was to follow the next year, and I’d rather see Russell Crowe’s troubled genius any day.
Best line: (Luzhin, preparing to play his rival) “As Pushkin’s doomed duelist said, ‘Let’s start if you’re willing.’”
Rank: Honorable Mention
© 2016 S. G. Liput
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