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A Fiennes Triumph

By Lianne Habinek

Directed by Martha Fiennes

Written by Peter Ettedgui & Michael Ignatieff

Based on the novel Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

Starring Ralph Fiennes, Liv Tyler, Toby Stephens, and Lena Headey

From the opening hammering of hoof beats across a desolate, snow-covered country field to the closing shot of a broken man wandering through the streets of a city now covered with a dingier snow, a sense of presentiment hangs over this film, informing every spoken word, every glance, every movement of its unhappy company. Indeed, no one is ever happy in Onegin, least of all Ralph Fiennes as the title character. Then again, viewing his track record (The End of the Affair, The English Patient, and Wuthering Heights -- although we may dismiss The Avengers as fluff), it seems he was made for the part of the brooding anti-hero.

Onegin, based on Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin, is Fiennes sister Martha’s directorial debut. Her originality and artful thinking are evident throughout the film, and I certainly hope we will see more from her soon. Screenwriters Peter Ettedgui and Michael Ignatieff attempt dialogue as lyric as that found in Pushkin’s novel, and the result is a poetic film very true to its source material. The music, mostly composed by brother Magnus Fiennes, is ironic and subtlely layered, with a folk-style fiddle motif running under a more modern romantic piano ballad.

Onegin, bored with the social scene of 1820’s St. Petersburg, moves to the country upon inheriting his uncle’s estate. There, he befriends his neighbor Lensky (Toby Stevens), who is engaged to Olga (Lena Headey). Onegin finds himself the object of desire of Olga’s sister Tatyana (Liv Tyler), but after she confesses her love to him he dismisses her, claiming not to be the marrying type. A tragedy ensues -- Onegin is called to duel with Lensky -- and six years later Onegin and Tatyana meet again.

Fiennes is in his element as the troubled Onegin. His effectiveness lies in his mercurial eyes -- they shift so quickly from boredom to cynicism to anger to love to torment -- and he is an intriguing figure. The same cannot be said of Tyler, sadly, and it is on this point that Onegin loses its hold on the viewer.

She and Fiennes are supposed to be experiencing the same anguish throughout the film, yet where his performance is layered and refined, hers is hollow and unfeeling. What is meant to be high passion in Tyler comes off as so much hair-pulling and fretting. Only at one point does Tyler’s one-dimensionality fall into synchrony with the film, and this is when she wanders through Onegin’s house after the duel to find he has gone away. At last, her emptiness works with the sense of vacancy Martha Fiennes is trying to create. Beyond this, Tyler is simply a faÇade, someone in the role of a creature of more mystery and sadness than she is. Stevens and Headey form well-painted supporting cast, respectively representing an embittered poet and his superficial muse.

Onegin is broken into bits by successive fade-ins and fade-outs. While such segmentation has, on one hand, the effect of freeing us from any set timeline and allowing us to wander through the film for ourselves, it also serves as an invitation to insert commercials. Indeed, this sectioning created a movie-of-the-week air (in keeping with its release schedule -- it debuted in Europe, then showed in the U.S. on the Starz! channel before opening to limited theatrical engagements), which is something of a shame considering how elegant Onegin is.

The film is visually enchanting, replete with tidily swirling skirts in city dance halls and sweeping shots over country forests. There are two highly memorable sequences, one being Onegin’s dizzying and seductive waltz with Olga -- they flash by faster and faster, their friends look on in dismay, and eventually they become such a mesh of fabric that we cannot tell the dancers from the dance. The eerie duel scene, which seems to float atop a foggy lake, is the other sequence to note. In this scene, Martha Fiennes shows a talent for controlling the elements of a shot -- all the color and life are sucked from the picture, leaving nothing but gray misery in its stead.

Onegin is a tricky film. My opinion of it flickers between enthusiasm for the triumvirate of Fienneses and a sense that something, somehow, was left out. Perhaps I am bothered by the film’s abrupt ending, perhaps by the fact that justification is not always given for the passions of the characters, or perhaps by the inevitably difficult leap anyone attempting to fashion classic verse into screen-worthy material must take. It is most likely, however, that my disquietude arises from Tyler’s barren portrayal of the lovelorn Tatyana. Save for this, Onegin is a captivating piece of artwork, an excellent debut for Martha, and another feather in Ralph’s tragic cap.