Alexander Luzhin (John Turturro), a Russian Grand Master, arrives at a North Italian lakeside resort for the 1929 world chess championship. This unkempt, awkward, and lonely man catches the eye of Natalia (Emily Watson), the independent daughter of Vera (Geraldine James), an aristocratic émigré who wants her to focus all her attention on Jean de Stassard (Christopher Thompson), a handsome and suave French count who is there to watch the chess matches. Also at the elegant resort is Luzhin's former manager, Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), a man who invested a lot of time and energy in his protégé only to decide he wasn't worth the effort. Or as he put it to Luzhin: "You're never going to be more than you are and what you are is not good enough." Valentinov is backing his former student's opponent, Turati (Fabio Sartor), a Grand Master with flair and poise.
Dutch director Marleen Gorris, whose Antonia's Line won the Academy Award as the Best Foreign Language Film of 1996, has a soft spot in her heart for eccentrics who must find their own way in the world. This is her second English language film, the first being Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. Through a series of flashbacks, we glimpse the vulnerable and unloved boy behind the socially inept Luzhin. He was taught chess by his aunt (Orla Brady), who then abandoned him to Valentinov. Luzhin's passion for chess fills all his moments until he falls madly in love with Natalia. She accepts his swift marriage proposal but has no idea of what she's getting herself into.
The film, based on a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, deals with the playfulness of these two eccentrics. Only trouble with Luzhin is that chess has obliterated all other aspects of life for him. Trying to squeeze love into the equation is an overwhelming challenge for his fragile mental and emotional resources. The playful Natalia, on the other hand, revels in breaking the rules and letting things fall where they may. In the surprising finale of the film, she even gets to stand in for Luzhin in the game he loves so dearly.