Friday December 17, 1999
"Onegin" is an elegantly wrought, deeply felt film based on Alexander Pushkin's 1831 novel in verse, which in turn inspired Tchaikovsky's 1879 opera. The very model of a literary adaptation to the screen, it stars a perfectly cast Ralph Fiennes and marks a remarkably assured feature directorial debut for Fiennes' sister, Martha, and also a splendid opportunity for their brother Magnus, who composed the film's spare yet evocative score. As a period piece the film is breathtaking in its beauty and authenticity, its production design a work of symbolically decayed grandeur.
Like the novel, the film plays an effortless simplicity of style against a rich complexity of character in flawless fashion. Fiennes' Onegin is a St. Petersburg aristocrat, a jaded, bored playboy swiftly running through his inheritance. He receives a magnificent reprieve when he inherits from his uncle a vast country estate, complete with a Greek Revival palace and serfs beyond count. He arrives in a quizzical state of mind, delighted to escape the numbing formality and routine of St. Petersburg society yet too cynical not to be his usual candid and direct self with the landed gentry, who are intimidated by his sophistication.
He immediately scandalizes his neighbors with his declaration that he intends to lease his land to his serfs, a notion that strikes a sympathetic note with the lovely Tatyana Larin (Liv Tyler), who is more intelligent and imaginative than most others in her rural world. More significant is the mutual attraction between Tatyana and the dashing newcomer, to whom she impetuously sends a letter declaring her love.
Onegin, though attracted, does not return the ardor and tells her so in a manner that she herself acknowledges as honorable. In the meantime, Onegin's relentless candor has had dire and unintended consequences, sending him into a six-year exile. When he next encounters Tatyana she has become the regal wife of his cousin, a prince (Martin Donovan) whose home would seem to be The Hermitage, no less. Now it is his turn to become love-struck.
"Onegin" is more than a romantic tragedy; it is the tragedy of a man who does not know himself--and his heart in particular--as well as he thinks he does. There is within Fiennes' personality and manner a clenched quality that sometimes works against him, as in "Oscar And Lucinda," but here is just right for a polished man who opens his heart too late. Under his sister's direction, Fiennes is at his most poised and least mannered; the result is one of the most effective, best-modulated portrayals to date.
Tyler is very much Fiennes' equal as Tatyana, who matures before our eyes yet, try as she may, cannot stop loving Onegin. Lena Headey is Tatyana's equally attractive but far less complicated sister Olga, and Toby Stephens is memorable as Olga's handsome, sweet-natured suitor who befriends Onegin only to be disastrously confounded by Onegin's insistence on speaking his mind at all costs. Among the gifted supporting players is that wondrously formidable grande dame, Irene Worth as a princess who gives Tatyana and her mother (Harriet Walter) some bluntly realistic advice.
"Onegin" is a pleasure in all ways, including Jim Clay's resourceful yet consistently stunning production design and Remi Adefarasin's lush yet rightly somber camera work. In bringing to life the long-vanished world of the Russian nobility, "Onegin" strikes a timeless note of eternal love and loss.
Onegin, 1999. Unrated. A Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Director Martha Fiennes. Producers Ileen Maisel, Simon Bosanquet. Executive producer Ralph Fiennes. Screenplay Michael Ignatieff, Peter Ettedgui; based on the verse novel by Alexander Pushkin. Cinematographer Remi Adefarasin. Editor Jim Clark. Music Magnus Fiennes. Costumes Chloe Obolensky, John Bright. Production designer Jim Clay. Art director Chris Seagers. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes. Ralph Fiennes as Evgeny Onegin. Liv Tyler as Tatyana Larin. Martin Donovan as Prince Nikitin. Toby Stephens as Vladimir Lensky. Lena Headey as Olga Larin[.