Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Onegin

By Bryan Poyser

JUNE 12, 2000: 

D: Martha Fiennes; with Ralph Fiennes, Liv Tyler, Martin Donovan, Toby Stephens, Lena Headey. (Not Rated, 106 min.)

Ralph and Martha Fiennes, brother and sister, bring to the screen a sumptuous yet unexceptional story of tragic love with this adaptation of Alexander Pushkin's novel in verse Evgeny Onegin. All the elements are there: a headstrong young girl, a worldly, enigmatic man, and a beautiful backdrop to their doomed love story. However, the film fails to provide enough insight into the characters to pull the audience through the story's turns of fortune with much emotional impact. This lack of insight is most glaring in the main character, Onegin, (Fiennes) a city-bred socialite who inherits his late uncle's estate in the country, where he meets the freethinking Tatyana (Tyler). It is through Onegin that we experience both the sophisticated, catty life of the rich and bored of St. Petersburg, Russia, and the provincial naïveté of the country folk. Onegin's attitude toward the provincial life is sketched out in his friendship with Vladimir Lensky (Stephens), the fiancé of Tatyana's sister. The genuineness of that friendship comes deeply into question after the film's one act of violence, but there are no real answers offered by the filmmakers. The narrative focus has since shifted to Tatyana and the ache of her unrequited love for Onegin. And, after a cleverly staged but jarring narrative jump of about six years, the film loses its hold on both of the characters' inner lives, making the final tearful confrontation between them more expositional than emotional. We're still trying to figure out exactly what happened to them in those six years when the film is giving us the heart-rending payoff to the entire story. That is not to say that watching Ralph Fiennes, an immensely talented actor, implode with unanswered longing after a lifetime of cynical detachment isn't a riveting experience. But, we marvel at Fiennes' skill rather than Onegin's actual turmoil because Onegin has been a stranger to us almost from the beginning. We lose sight of who these characters are in the visual flourishes that Martha Fiennes, a sought-after music video and commercial director making her feature debut, doles out consistently. The scene in which Tatyana puts her pen to paper and composes a desperate declaration of love to Onegin is a good example. Liv Tyler, her bosom heaving, sprawls on the floor of the music room in the dead of night with an inkwell full of passion. The score takes over, the editing becomes stylishly disjointed, with Liv crossing words out, now dipping the pen, now wiping her inky fingers on her pristine white nightgown. There is an idea to this scene ­ that writing is a passionate, dangerous activity ­ but it gets lost in the slick, pretty packaging. The filmmakers' trust seems to lie in their skill at creating beautiful images, and that's what they fall back on when a character is in crisis. However, with a character as enigmatic and detached as Onegin, you want at least an opinion or a point of view on his actions from the filmmakers, something other than splendor served up frame-by-frame.

2.5 Stars

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