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.
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.
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.
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.