I was tempted to watch this atmospheric adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s early 19th-century verse novel because of the fine cast, headed by Ralph Fiennes as world-weary aristocrat Eugene Onegin, Liv Tyler as the heroine, country girl Tatyana, and Toby Stephens as Onegin’s idealistic friend Vladimir Lensky.
However, fine as the actors are, I think in the end it will be the stunning scenery, the cinematography (by historical drama expert Remi Adefarasin) and above all the snow that stay with me from this production. Recently I watched the BBC mini-series The Impressionists, which uses slightly blurred colours to make its landscapes look uncannily like the paintings. This feature film often has the same kind of visual effect, slightly blurring and fading to create a haunting, dream-like impression.
The film is something of a Fiennes family project, with Martha Fiennes directing, her brother Ralph doubling as the star and the executive producer, and another brother, Magnus, having composed the haunting music, which nonetheless sounds very Russian to me. The blend of music and scenery reminded me of David Lean’s Dr Zhivago (1965), though I don’t think there are any balalaikas. I don’t know anything much about the screenwriter, Peter Ettedgui, but see from the imdb that he also scripted Vigo (1998), which is another tragic story, tracing the brief life of French film-maker Jean Vigo.
The film opens with a weary Onegin travelling through the Russian countryside after leaving St Petersburg to go to the deathbed of his uncle, a country aristocrat. His sophisticated lifestyle in St Petersburg, an endless succession of opera visits and affairs, is suggested in flashback, before he arrives in the bleak countryside – where he inherits the estate and meets Lensky, forming an instant friendship.
I should warn that I’m about to give away the whole plot of the film as I can’t really discuss it further without doing so – I don’t usually worry too much about spoilers, but there are a couple of twists, so if you don’t know the story, you might want to stop reading here.