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.
Lensky is engaged to Olga (Lena Headey) and proudly introduces Onegin to his beloved, together with her mother (Harriet Walter, a great costume drama actress) and her sister, Tatyana. Onegin’s jaded air of sophistication proves wildly attractive to Tatyana, who writes him a love letter declaring her feelings – however, he rejects her and then pointedly dances with Olga at Tatyana’s name day celebration, leading to disaster when a jealous Lensky challenges him to a duel.
The duel scene is probably the most memorable part of the film, as the two friends meet in the snow, although it has been made clear that neither really wants to fight – Lensky is terrified and Onegin is full of regret for what he has done. But a system of deadly etiquette has run away with them, there is no turning back, and, in a haunting visual image, Lensky ends up lying dead in the snow with blood spreading around him.
A guilt-ridden Onegin leaves the area and in effect disappears – but reappears several years later in Moscow, where he runs into Tatyana at a party. She is now married to his cousin, Prince Nikitin (Martin Donovan), and is the leader of society – despite rejecting her earlier, Onegin now falls hopelessly in love with her and starts to stalk her path, but she has determined she will always be faithful to her husband and is now the one to reject her old love.
Some reviews I’ve read suggest that Fiennes, as Onegin, seems too cold for his deep emotion to be convincing, but I’d say that is the point – this is a cold, world-weary man who nevertheless finds himself passionately in love, when it is too late for the emotion to change him or undo the things he has done which have blighted his life. Tyler is also convincing as the girl who becomes separated from her past, in effect sold in marriage, and has to live in a system of etiquette just as cruel as the one which led to the duel.
Throughout, the cinematography is magnificent, and there are many vivid parallels between later and earlier scenes, such as the way Onegin is shown writing his hopeless declaration to Tatyana, with a close-up focus on his pen and the ink forming the letters, just as in earlier scenes where she was the one writing to him.
After watching the film the first time, I quickly read Pushkin’s story in a prose translation by Roger Clarke, published by Wordsworth Classics – there are a lot of verse translations, but, from reading a few extracts from these online, I felt they all seemed full of forced rhymes. The story written down feels very different from the film because Pushkin himself is so present as narrator and is just as important a character as Onegin, constantly digressing to talk about his own life and making witty side comments. The text is also full of references to other writers, from Goethe and Rousseau to Samuel Richardson. None of this is present in the film, which, as a result, has a much bleaker, barer feeling to it – but I’d say the same intensity is there in both, even if it sometimes lies below the surface in the text.