The Luzhin Defence is a 2000 romantic drama film directed by Marleen Gorris, starring John Turturro and Emily Watson. The film centres on a mentally tormented chess grandmaster and the young woman he meets while competing at a world-class tournament in Italy. The screenplay was written by Peter Berry, based on the novel The Defense (or The Luzhin Defence) by Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov based The Defense on the life of German chess master Curt von Bardeleben who seemingly committed suicide by leaping from a window in 1924.
Emily Watson received best actress nominations at the British Independent Film Awards and the London Film Critics Circle Awards.
It's the early 1920s and Aleksandr Ivanovich 'Sascha' Luzhin (John Turturro), a gifted but tormented chess player, arrives in a Northern Italian city to compete in an international chess competition. Prior to the tournament he meets Natalia Katkov (Emily Watson) and he falls in love with her almost immediately. She in turn finds his manner to be appealing and they begin to see each other in spite of her mother Vera's disapproval.
The competition starts badly for Luzhin who is unsettled by the presence of Leo Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), a Russian, who is Luzhin's former chess tutor from pre-revolutionary Russia. Valentinov even approach Dottore Salvatore Turati (Fabio Sartor), Luzhin's main rival, telling the Italian Luzhin's defect while competing to ensure the loss his former prodigy.
Luzhin struggles through the early rounds but he soon begins to win again as his relationship with Natalia becomes closer and intimate. She then informs her parents that she is going to marry him. Meanwhile, Luzhin goes on to reach the final and face Turati.
In the finals the Russian Émigré loses out to the time clock, forcing the game to adjourn. However, outside the venue, he is whisked away by an accomplice of Valentinov who abandons him in the countryside. His former teacher knows that this will completely unhinge him because of the memory of his parents' abandonment many years ago. Luzhin wanders aimlessly until he collapses and is found by a group of Blackshirts and taken to the hospital.
The doctor informs Natalia that Luzhin will die if he keeps playing chess as he is addicted to the game and it's consuming his very being. Nevertheless, even while recuperating Valentinov comes around with a chess board encouraging Luzhin to finish the match with the Italian Turati. Natalia defends her beloved but urges him to break off with the game. Luzhin seems to agree.
Luzhin leaves the hospital with Natalia and they proceed to marry at the earliest opportunity. However, on the morning of the wedding, Luzhin is put into a car with Valentinov, who tells him that there is the small matter of finishing the competition. In terror, Luzhin leaps from the car. Dazed, cut and mentally confused, he stumbles back to the hotel where he tries to dig up the rest of the glass chess pieces he buried on the grounds years ago, but he does not find them.
He went back to his hotel room and locked himself in his muddied wedding suit. Natalia, in wedding dress, worried and went back to the hotel to find him. But before she can get the hotel staff to open the door, the troubled chess grandmaster jumps out of his bedroom window and dies.
While arranging Luzhin's staff, Natalia discovers the papers in his wedding suit pocket, with the help of the Count(Christooher Thompson), an experienced chess player himself, Natalia realizes it was Luchin's winning moves for his unfinished game. Natalia decides to play against Turati using her fiancé's notes.
The film was shot entirely in Europe. Budapest, Hungary was used for outdoor scenes as they were set in St Petersburg, these included the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Hungarian National Museum and Heroes' Square. The chess tournament (although in Italy) was shot inside the main hall of the Museum of Ethnography, Budapest. In Italy, the hotel scenes were filmed at Villa Erba, Cernobbio, on the Lake Como. The scene at the railway station is in Brenna-Alzate, near Como.
In the novel, Valentinov's first name is never mentioned; on the contrary, Luzhin's first name is revealed only in the closing sentences. Another dissimilarity is that the novel ends up by Luzhin's suicide, thereby his game would be never finished.