When director Marleen Gorris, who won the Oscar for “Antonia’s Line” as best foreign-language film of 1995, was approached about taking on a screen version of Vladimir Nabokov’s Russian novel “The Defense,” she hadn’t read the book–a characteristically enigmatic and allusive work about the mental breakdown of a chess master named Luzhin–and as she explained during a recent Dallas interview, that was a rather good thing. “I was given the first draft of the script [by Peter Berry],” she said, “and after that, I read the book. I really liked the script–it was a well-written, intelligent script. Then I read the book, and I thought to myself, this book is a marvelous piece of work, but I’m not so sure that if I had read the book first, I would have wanted to make a film of it, because it’s not very filmic, and it’s very bleak, and the characters are not worked out properly [for a film]. The only person really that matters in the book is Luzhin himself, with his obsession, and most of what happens, happens in his mind.” She was especially nonplussed by what she saw as the author’s “very strange and aloof way of describing people.”
But Gorris felt that Berry had successfully transformed the novel into something that could work on screen. “I thought that the script kept the basic idea–the chess genius that can’t really cope with true passions and true emotions–but the script and ultimately the film really enlarged on that idea, and a lot of things were added,” she explained. The character of Natalia (Emily Watson), the woman who becomes the protector and wife of Luzhin (John Turturro), was greatly expanded, and Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), a peripheral figure in the book, became Luzhin’s malicious nemesis, actively working for his downfall. The result is a work, as Gorris describes it, about “what happens to a person when he’s suddenly transported into the world of emotions.” It may not please purists devoted to Nabokov’s original, she admitted, but in her view the changes help “The Luzhin Defence” to work as a film, and she isn’t apologetic about them. “I think his [Nabokov’s] books probably are very difficult to make films of, unless you change them quite a lot–and this one was changed quite a lot,” Gorris observed. “I’m not claiming to be faithful to the novel. It [the film] is really loosely based on it.”
If Gorris hadn’t been familiar with Nabokov’s novel prior to undertaking the film, she wasn’t expert in chess, either–and didn’t try to become so: “I knew so little about it, and the level of chess in this film is so high, I thought ‘I’m never going to reach that.’ I know a few moves and all that, but there’s a whole world behind chess, apart from the degree of difficulty.” Compensation came in the form of John Speelman, a British grand master who advised on the film and helped insure that the games depicted in it are in all respects accurate. As a result of his participation, Gorris said, “we knew exactly which moves had to be made. Each move was totally and completely correct.” Specialists have seen the finished product and, Gorris recalled, “They were impressed by the total accuracy of it.”
Speelman also served as an inspiration to Turturro in formulating his interpretation of Luzhin. A smiling Gorris described the Englishman as “really out there–he’s actually a bit like the Luzhin character. I wouldn’t have believed that such people really exist. He’s a fantastic character, and I think John took a lot of his mannerisms and tics” for his portrayal.
“The Luzhin Defence” was lushly photographed in Hungary and the Lake Como region of Italy. The major Italian setting, Gorris revealed, was a villa previously owned by the late Italian writer-director Luchino Visconti, since purchased by the local municipality. “He edited his last film there,” Gorris said. And with his art director’s eye he would probably have been pleased to know that a film as refined and sumptuous as Gorris’ had utilized the site so effectively.
“The Luzhin Defence” is a Sony Pictures Classics release.