(British, 1999, 106 minutes, color, 35mm)
The following excerpt is taken from a London Evening Standard review by Alexander Walker, November 18, 1999.
There is an aesthetic severity and glacial poise about Onegin, the feature debut of Martha Fiennes, sister of Ralph, whose visual style has been honed by her work in pop promos and commercials. With Ralph in the lead as Pushkin’s acerbic anti-hero, Evgeny Onegin, and Magnus Fiennes providing the film’s music, it is very much a Fiennes family affair.
By ditching much of Pushkin’s philosophical musings and digressions on what it is to be Russian, and cutting the narrative to the bones of the abortive romance between Onegin and Tatyana, scriptwriters Michael Ignatieff and Peter Ettedgui allow the characters and the environment room to breathe. Moreover, the ambivalence of Onegin’s character—is he genuinely jaded beyond redemption or does the ice melt?—is played to the hilt.
In an atypical Fiennes performance, Onegin is an enigma. This keeps us interested and intrigued while maintaining a detachment that is wholly appropriate. Consequently, this is not a plunge into fur-clad passions in the manner of Dr Zhivago but a forensic chamber piece that dissects 1820s Russian society and its behavioural codes with clinical precision.
Having run out of money while acting the life of a decadent wastrel in St Petersburg, languidly hanging out in the salons with a group of similarly dissolute aristos whom he despises almost as much as himself, Onegin is amused to find that he is the heir to his late uncle’s country estate. Arriving at the elegant pile, he installs himself in the mansion without making any huge effort to get to know his neighbours.
He does, however, perk up at the sight of Tatyana (Liv Tyler), the sister of a girl who is betrothed to a young poet, Lensky (Toby Stephens), to whom he continues his uncle’s courtesy of loaning books from his extensive library. As he and Lensky gradually forge a friendship of opposites—Lensky’s wide-eyed romantic nature abrading with Onegin’s spiky sophistication—Tatyana gradually becomes obsessed with the new boy next door.
So far, so good. Things take a turn for the tragic when Tatyana unwisely declares her love to Onegin who promptly turns her down. He then insults Lensky by first calling his fiancée parochial and then flirting with her at a local ball. Lensky’s impetuous nature provokes him into a duel with his friend, which Onegin does his best to deflect. But on a misty morning by a country lake, Onegin’s hand is forced. Following two shockingly abrupt pistol shots, Lensky lies dead and Onegin is forced to flee back to St Petersburg. When Onegin and Tatyana meet again years later, circumstances have changed dramatically for both of them.
The cruel ironies at the heart of Onegin are extrapolated by Martha Fiennes’s subtle stylistic tropes; the screen is dominated by the glacial hues of grey and blue, chandeliers and glasses sparkle like ice crystals. And when Tatyana writes the fateful letter declaring her love for Onegin, it is a wantonly sensual experience - the scratch of nib, the soaking of ink into paper and the way Tyler rubs her inky hands between her thighs are profoundly erotic.
Fiennes delivers one of his best screen performances as Onegin, a character who seems to chime perfectly with the actor’s elusive charisma, and his timing of the caustic one-liners is perfect. Tyler is a revelation as Tatyana, shifting gear from innocence to bruised adolescence into the final strait as a sophisticated woman of principle who has buried her youthful romantic exuberance beneath a covering of uncompromising pride and pragmatic sense.
Finally, veteran actress Irene Worth delivers a performance to relish as an aging princess who dispenses counsel on the realpolitik of marriage and society from her flamboyantly caparisoned bed. This scene alone is worth the price of admission.
A Fiennes film, a fine film indeed.
The following excerpt is taken from a San Francisco Examiner review by Wesley Morris, “Onegin: All in the Family.” March 3, 2000.
Ralph Fiennes is to depressive literary romantic tragedies as Meg Ryan is to comedic love: an altruist and a fool. He has turned being kicked to the curb into a humorous study in high-minded abasement. That he should play Evgeny (or “Eugene”) Onegin, Alexander Pushkin’s spurned cad, was inevitable. But what took him so long?
Fiennes strolls through “Onegin,” his sister Martha’s hot-blooded, balmy first film, like a dandy on the prowl for some young woman to hurt. What was richly Byronic in English translations of the Russian poet’s 1861 verse novel now has a vague superficiality about it. The Fiennes’ Onegin is a primped-up player and a torpid, swaggering jerk, whose demeanor resembles a Ph.D. candidate who’d leave the drawing room for a bong hit.
Set in snowbound 19th century St. Petersburg, “Onegin” has also been distilled by Michael Ignatieff and Peter Ettedgui down to a basic, but impressively told story of revolving obsession between Onegin and Tatyana Larina (Liv Tyler), the timid young woman smitten with him, and his shallow realization that he’s made a mistake.
Tatyana confesses her love for Onegin in a letter that he returns along with her request for his heart. He’d rather seduce the flirty fiancée of his jealous good friend, Vladimir (Toby Stephens), whom he kills in a handsomely staged fog-ridden face-off at a lake. Vladimir’s death was a definitive internal breakthrough in Pushkin’s version, the first time Onegin is allowed to experience grief. But Martha Fiennes uses the confrontation to demonstrate that she has style to spare, particularly where the muted, crafty and radiant Tyler is concerned.
Although there’s nothing wrong with her measured English accent, Martha has Tyler do a great deal of [silent] watching, exposing her as a physically odd, sometimes ordinary creature. Casting her as Tatyana is a head-scratcher that Tyler justifies with the haunting regalness of a life-size doll. Of course, Onegin is all about such set pieces - the way leaves blow through them, the way Ralph and Tyler walk around the perimeters of a party seeing and waiting to be seen, respectively. Martha doesn’t really care about making the emotional consequences of their seesaw of confession resonate. She rather cleverly does the unthinkable - makes Pushkin sexy.
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