starring Ralph Fiennes, Liv Tyler, Toby Stephens, Lena Headey
screenplay by Peter Ettedgui and Michael Ignatieff, based on the poem "Yevgeny Onegin" by Alexander Pushkin
directed by Martha Fiennes
by Bill Chambers "When will the devil take me?" he asks rhetorically in a lulling voiceover. The spoiled title character of Onegin (pronounced Oh-negg-in) is waiting on death to relieve him after a lifetime of rapacious, caddish behaviour has left him soul-sick. Martha Fiennes's debut feature is--quite literally--filmed poetry (it's based on the epic Russian poem by Alexander Pushkin), a profound study of regret, of how we confuse shame with guilt.
When we first meet Eugene Onegin (Ralph Fiennes, acting for his sister; another brother, Magnus, composed the score), a philandering aristocrat from St. Petersburg, he has just inherited his uncle's estate. With plans to sell it, Onegin pays a summer visit to the manor, which is located in an underpopulated Russian countryside, and not long into the trip he meets a neighbouring family of bluebloods. Smitten with Olga Larina (Lena Headey), he befriends Olga's fiancé, Vladimir Lensky (Toby Stephens), while Olga's sister, Tatyana (Liv Tyler), romanticizing his flippant attitude (he's a nineteenth-century bad boy), falls for Onegin.
In one sweaty, inky torrent of passion, Tatyana writes him a love letter. He is at least intrigued by the note but rejects her affections, it is implied, because he can have her. Soon after, tragedy strikes, and Onegin makes himself scarce. When we catch up with him, six years later, he has returned to St. Petersburg, where at a grand ball he discovers that an old friend (Martin Donovan) has married a more womanly, worldly Tatyana. This time, Onegin finds her irresistible, it is implied, because he can't have her. What is most amazing about Ralph Fiennes's performance is his subtle physical transformation from dashing snob to miserly grouch. Overwhelmed by a top hat in his later scenes, the Onegin who pines for Tatyana seems smaller in stature than the one who brushed her off, the modern Ebeneezer Scrooge trapped in Christmas past.
After making a grand impression as a ruthless Nazi in Schindler's List, the actor got stuck in a groove of playing bland heroes; there's room for him to breathe again in this role that's all shades of grey. Joni Mitchell sang of a universal phenomenon in "Big Yellow Taxi": "Don't it always seem to go/That you don't know what you've got/'Til it's gone." Onegin's about-face on Tatyana speaks to that common human flaw of not being able to recognize someone's value until their unavailability makes it painfully obvious. What the character feels is not exactly jealousy but remorse--embarrassment, even--at having let her go. Onegin is a callous bastard, though his flaws are relatable. As is Tatyana's blackening infatuation. Tyler acquits herself surprisingly well among her UK co-stars, filling in something of a sketch through the most sumptuous closeups of an actress since Mia Kirshner in The Crow: City of Angels. They both have faces, Mr. Fiennes and Ms. Tyler, capable of conveying some archetypal Russian misery.
Onegin could have added up to little more than a distinguished episode of "Masterpiece Theatre", even with its current cast of thoroughbreds intact, were Martha Fiennes not at the helm. An MTV background--she cut her teeth directing rock videos for XTC and others--appears to have positively influenced her economy of narrative (though thankfully not her shot lengths--no spasmodic cutting here); at just over 100 minutes, Onegin clicks along like a brisk walk through valleys of despair. The film has an atypical period look as well. Absent are the sumptuous tableware and antique furnishings that stand in for plot and character in drippy Merchant-Ivory wannabes. The sets are minimalist almost to the point of expressionism, mirroring the loneliness of the protagonists. Cinematographer Remi Adafarasin, who previously filmed the peculiarly empty tableaux of Elizabeth, often allows negative space to engulf the cast; I'm thinking especially of the climax, which unfolds in a sea of white. Martha Fiennes has managed to make something at once stylish and melancholy, much like her characters. I sense that Onegin heralds the next Jane Campion. Originally published: December 17, 1999.