By Indiewire | Indiewire September 19, 1999 at 2:0AM
TORONTO REVIEW: Lush "Onegin" Fails To Pull Off Pushkin
by Stephen Garrett
Visually dazzling production design is the only consistent pleasure in
director Martha Fiennes' "Onegin," a lifeless adaptation of Alexander
Pushkin's 19th century novel "Evgeny Onegin." The earmarks of a vanity
affair are everywhere in that Ralph Fiennes, the movie's star, is also
brother to the director as well as executive producer on the film,
erasing, one presumes, levels of objectivity that might otherwise have
corrected the dreadful mediocrity on display.
The whole exercise reeks of wasted opportunity, since the assembled
cast, including a radiant Liv Tyler actually pulling off an aristocratic
accent and a sorely underused Martin Donovan, is first rate and deliver
their flaccid dramatic posturing with as much gusto as they can muster.
But whatever revelations Pushkin recorded about human nature in his book
are muted, if not entirely absent, from the obvious and unsurprising
screenplay by Michael Ignatieff and Peter Ettedgui.
Set in St. Petersburg in the 1820s, the story follows the cold-hearted
smugness of nobleman bachelor Evgeny Onegin (Fiennes), whose reputation
for wooing any woman he wants is notorious and who has no faith that
people can actually feel true love. When a dandyish lifestyle
eventually eats up all his money, Onegin gets word that his rich country
uncle is dying and will leave him all his possessions. Bored with his
friends and feeling contempt for the city's social scene, he happily
abandons St. Petersburg for the rustic life.
Once in the country, Onegin becomes accidentally political in his
radically liberal notion of renting his farmland to the indentured
servants who toil on it, when in fact the decision is made solely out of
laziness for not wanting to manage the property himself. Regardless,
his more sophisticated notions only highlight the seemingly backward
thinking of his bumpkin neighbors, The Larins, and despite Onegin's
understanding of his own behavior as honest and direct, others around
him interpret his blunt criticism of their lifestyle as unnecessarily
cruel and insulting.
The Larin daughters, though, are charmed by Onegin; and the younger,
Tatyana (Tyler) becomes overwhelmingly attracted to him. When she
confesses her love in a heart-wrenching letter, he takes her aside and
dryly thanks her for the affection, then refuses her offer and returns
the letter. Devastated, Tatyana insists that she will never marry any
man she doesn't love. Meanwhile, Tatyana's older sister Olga (Lena
Headey) is engaged to marry Vladimir Lensky (Toby Stephens), a rough but
charming neighbor who becomes Onegin's best friend. But Onegin's
tactless remarks about Olga and his own chronic needling of Vladimir's
provincial outlook lead Vladimir to suspect that Onegin is seducing his
Eager to restore his honor, the stubborn Vladimir challenges a reluctant
Onegin to a duel, with devastating consequences. Onegin, shaken by what
happens, leaves the country and spends six years traveling aimlessly,
finally returning to St. Petersburg. There he discovers that Tatyana
has married his cousin, Prince Nikitin (Donovan) and has trapped herself
into a marriage of convenience. Now deeply in love with the woman he
once scorned, Onegin tries to win back Tatyana's love and mend her
The nagging inconsistency throughout the story is Onegin's truly
unattractive outlook on life. Perpetually glum and seemingly annoyed,
if not repulsed, by having to socialize with other people, the
misanthropic Onegin is hardly convincing as a Lothario, let alone an
attractive, if mean-spirited rogue. Where the film perpetually fails is
in being able to articulate Onegin's ennui in a compelling way -- and
weaving his own reluctance to love into a dramatic framework that
explores the effects of concealing emotion in a world of rigid social
conduct. There is the sense of deeper conflicts in the story, but none
are really dramatized in a satisfying way.
Ultimately there is nothing redeeming in the film except Jim Clay's
breathtaking production design and Chloe Obolensky's and John Brights'
costume deign, recreating a lush world of elegance and wealth that
doesn't deserve a story as shallow as this.