Onegin
Director: Martha Fiennes. Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Liv Tyler, Toby Stephens, Martin Donovan, Lena Headey, Harriet Walter, Irene Worth. Screenplay: Michael Ignatieff and Peter Ettedgui (based on the novel in verse Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin).


Photo © 1999 Samuel Goldwyn Films
Several people, with partial justification, have wondered about the career trajectory of Ralph Fiennes. His was one of the most stunning, high-profile breakthroughs in English-language cinema in the 1990s, appearing at or near the center of three Best Picture nominees within the first four years of his film career: Schindler's List in 1993, Quiz Show in 1994, and The English Patient in 1996. Since then, his projects have been either box-office disappointments (Strange Days, The End of the Affair), one genuine critical and commercial bomb (The Avengers), and some smaller, eccentric choices that barely make a blip on the radar of the Hype Machine.

As a great fan of Fiennes, I am rankled even more by the total neglect of these small-scale and highly personal projects than by the underratedness of Strange Days or the wrong-headedness of The Avengers. The problem is not that Ralph doesn't still make good movies, it's that when he does, no one even knows they've been released. Oscar and Lucinda came and went in about twenty theaters in the early months of 1998, much to the disadvantage of any audience looking for the kind of charming, off-beat, gentle romance offered in that film by Fiennes, his then-unknown costar Cate Blanchett, and a fabulous crew of moviemakers. Hollywood marketing execs and distribution officers showed the same inexplicable indifference to Onegin, an adaptation of Pushkin's great verse novel that not only features Fiennes as its star and executive producer (read: bankroller) but also his sister Martha as first-time director and his brother Magnus as the composer.

The sentimental appeal of these kinds of family pet projects apparently doesn't apply in the corporate realm of show business; Aidan Quinn and his army of siblings also had a hell of a time last year convincing anyone to distribute, exhibit, or attend their autobiographical labor of love, This Is My Father. I didn't see the Quinn clan's picture, either, so I can't cast too many stones. I can report, though, that Onegin—which I was lucky enough to catch on the big screen at Cornell University's second-run cinema—is a beautiful, haunting film, utterly unlike the steady trickle of costume dramas that often get much more heavily promoted and widely seen. Onegin tells the story of a spoiled aristocrat in early 19th-century St. Petersburg who travels into the rough Russian provinces to survey the estate he inherited from a recently dead uncle. While in the country, he meets Tatyana (Liv Tyler), a beautiful young girl who falls in love with him, deeply but without hope. Onegin is touched by her candor but, whether because of their separation of age, class, or experience, he rebuffs her. Six years later, the two meet again in St. Petersburg, where she, more beautiful than ever, is the wife of a wealthy and highly regarded soldier (Martin Donovan). It is Onegin who now falls in love for her, but she is forbidden and perhaps disinclined to reciprocate his pitiful advances.

Perhaps that outline sounds like the basic structure of all those other costume dramas from which I've said Onegin differs so markedly. One difference, hard to communicate in writing, is that the last paragraph is not a condensation of Onegin's plot; it's the whole thing. True, there is a very important parallel plot in the country involving the tenuous friendship between the supercilious Onegin and the totally different Lensky (Toby Stephens of Twelfth Night), a sweet-natured pastoral naf who sings off-key love songs to Tatyana's sister Olga (Lena Headey). Even this second narrative thread, however, comprises only a short, spare series of key moments in Lensky and Olga's courtship (and here adapters Michael Ignatieff and Peter Ettedgui are markedly faithful to Pushkin's book). Though both the cosmopolitan majesty of St. Petersburg and the rustic humility of the countryside are vividly portrayed in the film, none of its scenes exist for the mere purpose of showcasing the landscape, immersing us in crowds of gratuitous extras, or widening the focus beyond the four or five characters at the heart of the drama.

Moreover, and deliberately, we do not have enough information to psychologize why Tatyana falls in love with Onegin, why he stays in the country as long as he does, what he genuinely thinks about Lensky, or why Tatyana refuses Onegin later in their lives. The story, though tightly and symmetrically structured, emphasizes its own mysteries, underlining the fact that none of the characters seem fully aware of each other's motivations, or even of their own. Besides, other enigmas beyond those of romance consistently fascinate the protagonists. Onegin, for example, appears transfixed by the wide-openness of the rural setting. Tatyana is hypnotized by books, by houses, by hallways; both in her village and later in the city, the film spends considerable time watching Liv Tyler watch something else as she creeps slowly down a shadowed corridor, or skates across frozen rivers with a far-off, inscrutable expression on her face.

This could all get mighty dull if the film were longer than it is (Onegin clocks in at around 100 minutes) or if a less estimable cinematographer than Remi Adefarasin had been brought in to helm the camera. As in his most famous previous credit, 1998's Elizabeth, Adefarasin prefers high-contrast shots that make colors more vivid and textures (of clothes, of skin, of water, of glass) more tangible. In Elizabeth, however, director Shekhar Kapur encouraged Adefarasin to show off as much as possible; the compositions and colors were often startling but also distracting and amateurish in their own florid self-consciousness. The shots in Onegin are much calmer and, for that reason, much more engrossing, and in general, Martha Fiennes has rendered her movie with uncommon beauty, patience, and restraint. The movie studies its elegant scenery and performers but never slobbers over them, therefore staying loyal both to the brooding quality of its characters' emotions and to the elliptical fineness of Pushkin's verse. The common solutions in adapting this kind of writing to film is to force exposition or "explanation" into the mouths of characters; Onegin, of which the soundtrack for minutes at a time may comprise only music, or virtual silence, is smart enough to shut itself up and let the images tell the story.

Amidst all of this visual poetry, Ralph Fiennes gives one of his best performances, showing a rarely-seen comic lightness in Onegin's gentle ribbing of urban society, of provincial innocence, and, implicitly, of his own aristocratic arrogance, which after all affords him the privilege to ridicule and condescend as often as he does. When the story calls for Fiennes to play the notes of desperate ardor for which he has grown so famous, he sounds them very well, but it's refreshing to see the actor work his way into romantic longing instead of existing there from the get-go, as in the unreasonably treacly End of the Affair. Liv Tyler also registers more effectively than she is allowed to in the bad movies that so often paralyze or pinion her, from Armageddon to Stealing Beauty. As in those films, she generally inhabits in Onegin the role of the beautiful love-object, but her tersely passionate Tatyana always communicates more than her dialogue or even her face reveals. On the two principal occasions when Tatyana must disclose her emotions, the actress employs her gift for conveying sincerity of feeling, even when that feeling manifests itself in na#&237ve or unrefined ways, and she is mostly convincing. Still, the movie wisely keeps such effusions of pathos to a minimum and preserves Tatyana where she most belongs, in fascinating quiet.

I realize upon reading this review that I haven't made Onegin sound titillating so much as just slow. That's doubtless a sign that it won't be to everyone's taste—I suppose it is a bit slow—but it's also a tribute to the way this story has been safeguarded from the temptation toward overly embellished narrative or a semaphoring approach to its concise, suppressed, or inchoate emotional states. I also realize I haven't said anything bad about Onegin. Perhaps the only way the movie really undermines itself is that, in its fidelity to Pushkin's exquisite model, it never quite stands apart from the written text or dispels the feeling that you'd be getting even more out of reading the novel itself. In its wise, constant respect for the limitations of cinema in animating such interiorized and culturally specific material, the movie inevitably reminds you of those very limitations. As flaws go, however, I'd say that's a minor one, and I'd reiterate that Onegin is as precise and intelligent a rendering of Pushkin's verse as I can imagine, and possibly the most visually gorgeous movie I saw in 1999. I don't know what studio honcho decided you wouldn't want to see Onegin, but if you even bothered to read this review, I guarantee you that you do. B+


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