Genius distracted by unlikely romance.


directed by Marleen Gorris with John Turturro and Emily Watson opens May 4 at Seven Gables

A CHESS MOVIE sounds about as exciting as, say, a yoga flick, since the game is essentially interior, an exercise in thought. (You'll recall that 1994's Fresh combined board moves with drug dealing and gunfire; 1993's Searching for Bobby Fischer was more father-son drama.) In adapting a Nabokov novella, Antonia's Line director Marleen Gorris naturally chooses to emphasize the love story between a shabby, eccentric, former child prodigy chess player (John Turturro) and the wealthy young woman (Emily Watson) who improbably falls for him. Both Luzhin and Natalia are members of the post-revolutionary Russian expatriate community; they meet on the lush shores of a Lake Como-like setting, circa the late '20s. He's there to compete, and she to find a husband.

Neither seems a good match for the other. He's a man-child, barely able to manage his life (or game, which is at something of a crisis). She's watchful and aware, rebuffing one eligible suitor as she scrutinizes penniless Luzhin. Embracing the latter is an affront to Natalia's stuffy, caricatured mother, although her relative family harmony contrasts with Luzhin's unhappy upbringing, which we see in regular flashbacks. "This wretched game makes you ill," says the lad's flawed but loving father. Such literal-minded writing works against Luzhin's convincingly European period look; in such a Merchant-Ivory setting, we expect more subtlety of character and sophistication of dialogue, both of which are sorely absent here. The return of Luzhin's villainous former mentor later adds minimal suspense to an obvious and disappointing film.

As for the performers, Watson shines her usual intelligence through an underwritten part, while Turturro starts out refreshingly tic-free, then descends into Rain Man-style freak/savant mannerism. (You feel embarrassed for both actors during Luzhin's one overwrought sex scene.)

IN SEATTLE RECENTLY, Marleen Gorris explained how the Natalia character had to be fleshed out from Nabokov's 1930 story. "The book is actually very, very different from the script," she notes. "In the novel she's actually totally superficial. She isn't really a character. She's more of a sketch. If you have this very strong force of a chess player, then you need a stronger woman. Even at that time, she was a woman who could afford to be strong and independent, because she has money. What we did was to give her a stronger will of her own—and a sense of humor. It lightened up the story a bit."

Why does Natalia fall for the inscrutable Luzhin? "She wants the unknown, because the unknown is always far more attractive to some people than what they know," answers Gorris. Yet like the final chess problem that obsesses Luzhin, the director concludes, he ultimately remains an enigma to Natalia: "She can't crack him."

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