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Onegin

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 11 February 2000

Directed by Martha Fiennes.

Starring Ralph Fiennes,
Liv Tyler, Toby Stephens,
Lena Headly, Irene Worth
and Martin Donovan.

Written by Peter Ettedgui and Michael Ignatieff,
from the verse novel by Alexander Pushkin.

Alexander Pushkin described the protagonist of his 1833 novel Eugene Onegin with, "[H]ow soft his glance, or at discretion/how bold or bashful there, and here/how brilliant with its instant tear!" That would seem to describe the talented, roguishly-handsome actor Ralph Fiennes, as well. But Onegin, the film which director Martha Fiennes (Ralph's sister) has made, removes everything from the source material except what is staid, somber, and decorous. You wouldn't be able to guess from what's here that Pushkin's novel is a much more livelier affair than this.

Onegin takes leave of his opulent life in St. Petersburg to take possession of an estate that has been bequeathed to him in the country. While he's there, he catches the eye of Tatyana (Liv Tyler), daughter of the well-to-do family whose property is next door to Onegin's. But Onegin spurns Tatyana's love for him, something that, after he returns to St. Petersburg, he comes to regret.

Before the film moves, like a stately procession, to its unexpectedly overwrought conclusion ("Save me! Save me!" "I cannot!"), there are a couple of things of interest along the way. The cinematographer Remi Adefarasin has given the picture a gorgeous look overall. There is the musty, overstuffed, intriguing treasure-chest look of the library in Onegin's country house, and the way he wears his tall brimmed hat at a fashionably cocked angle. Gwenllian Davies' appearance as a house servant who is able to divine the future by reading candle wax droppings poured into the clear water of a crystal bowl. And the tower of red drapery that hangs over the bed where the stage actress Irene Worth plays her one, and only, scene in the movie. The letters which Tatyana and Onegin exchange in the film were also translated, from Pushkin's original Russian text, by no less than novelist D.M. Thomas, author of The White Hotel.

As Onegin, Fiennes starts the film with what can best be described as guarded expressiveness, but then sinks down into gloomy introspection. Liv Tyler has a tendency to pout her way through all her scenes, even the ones where she is supposed to have transformed into a lady of society. And Martin Donovan looks like he can't wait to be done with his scenes as a military officer, especially the ones where he appears, at a social event, in a box-life formal uniform with decorations. Much of the dialogue in the film has the disconcerting sound of coming from somewhere other than the people who are speaking it on-screen (although Fiennes, Russian accent and all, sounds fine).

Onegin is receiving a strange distribution plan in the U.S.: it showed briefly, in New York and Los Angeles, last December to qualify for Academy Awards; it then closed, and is now showing on the Starz channel during February; then it is to reopen theatrically in March. The makers of Onegin were probably hoping to make the kind of genteel, civilized type of film that hardly turns up, anymore. What they ended up with, though, is a mishap.


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