In the Nabokovian realm, European filmmakers haven't fared much better. German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Brit playwright Tom Stoppard did their best with Despair in 1979, but the book's famous satirical venom quickly evaporated before the cameras. Now comes the Dutch worthy Marleen Gorris (Antonia's Line) to tackle what may be the most peculiar Nabokov film project of all -- an adaptation of the writer's early, little-known Russian-language novel The Defense, here presented as The Luzhin Defence. Speaking of odd casting, how about this: John Turturro as a deeply disturbed Russian émigré chess master come to ground in the Italian Lake District in 1929. Why not Jim Carrey? Or Jennifer Lopez?
Superficially, the great Russian American novelist's story survives. The hero, one Alexander Luzhin (Turturro), arrives shabby and seemingly confused at a stately Italian hotel to compete in the world chess championship. This man-child's got soup stains on his lapels and holes in his pockets, and those are just signs of his inner turmoil: Through an agonizing and seemingly endless series of flashbacks, we learn he's tormented by unresolved childhood traumas and by his obsession with the game. There's simply no room in this single-minded savant's life for anything but chess. So when he suddenly and unexpectedly falls in love with an aristocratic Russian beauty named Natalia (Emily Watson), whose calculating mother (Geraldine James) is shopping the girl among the eligible bachelors at the lake, Luzhin seems about to blow a fuse.
To make matters worse, among the kings and queens, there's also a knave -- Luzhin's former mentor and tormentor, a cruel plotter called Valentinov (Stuart Wilson). As the chess game starts to unfold, headstrong Natalia and demonic Valentinov compete for Luzhin's soul, and we sense from the start that this brilliant but vulnerable creature may not be equal to the pressure. Add to the mix the presence of his preening rival at the board, the imperious Italian champion Turati (Fabio Sartor), and the recipe for disaster is complete.
Thus does Rain Man meet Searching for Bobby Fischer. Gorris advances the interpersonal intrigues with admirable skill -- albeit at a laggard's pace -- and, if you're willing to forgive Turturro's hammy excesses and the sense he gives that this is not Italy in the '20s but the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway the day before yesterday, then Defence may pass muster as psychological drama. What's missing -- what's always missing whenever a filmmaker takes on Nabokov -- is the art of Nabokov. Despite the idiotic censorship controversies that greeted both movie versions of Lolita, that masterful novel had less to do with the obsessive love affair of a middle-aged professor and a knowing nymphet than the paradoxes and possibilities of language itself, which couldn't be translated to the screen. A lesser work of fiction, but a Nabokov novel nonetheless, The Defense (even in translation) reveals the writer's fascinations with illusion and distortion, his skill at constructing multiple layers of reality, his matchless ironic imagination. "A true master of words," one critic called him, "one who somehow makes all other writers seem shaggy and thumb-tongued muddlers." John Updike calls his writing "ecstatic"; Martin Amis says it is "the nearest thing to pure sensual pleasure that prose can offer."
Like Kubrick and Fassbinder before them, Gorris and scriptwriter Peter Berry can provide only a distant echo of that glory, although they do a passable job here of expressing some of Nabokov's enduring themes -- among them the pain of exile and an enchantment with chess, which afflicted the author as well.
At its best, the film is a vivid portrait of a modern psyche in crisis, although Nabokov, who died in 1977, might have contempt for that idea. Of the Freudian vogue then surrounding him, he once scoffed: "Would you have a complete stranger sit at the bedside of your mind?" At its worst, The Luzhin Defence is something like Rocky for the art-house crowd -- with Alexander Luzhin as the flawed heavyweight set to do battle with Turati's Apollo Creed, Natalia as his loyal girlfriend from da neighborhood, and Valentinov as the obligatory crooked fight manager. In the end, it demonstrates all over again the virtual impossibility of doing Nabokov justice on film, because his work is so resolutely and brilliantly made of words. We might all do well to watch this reasonably entertaining movie as a mere story, then set out for a bookstore or library for a transcendent taste of the real thing.