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September 6, 2010

Onegin (1999)
Director: Martha Fiennes
Actors: Ralph Fiennes, Liv Tyler, Toby Stephens

Synopsis: Dissolute Russian aristocrat, Onegin (Ralph Fiennes), has his heart tugged and conscience pricked, over one long summer in the Russian countryside.

Review: Back in the late Nineties when cinematic period adaptations were all the rage and Ralph Fiennes’ star was at its peak, this low-budget version of Alexander Pushkin’s epic poem “Onegin” sort of slipped under the radar. That neglect is undeserved because this is an admirable film that does much more with its generic elements of narrative, casting, production design and cinematography than the majority of the Austen adaptations that garnered more adulation at the time. One of the great triumphs of Onegin is that although clearly working on limited resources, director Martha Fiennes (Ralph’s younger sister) was able to create a palpable sense of place for her Nineteenth Century Russian tale (the immensity of its open spaces, the cold and spartan country estates, the aristocratic splendour of St Petersburg) that perfectly complimented the sentiment of the story. The casting of Ralph Fiennes and Liv Tyler in the two lead roles was also ingenious. Although Fiennes was already something of a past-master at portraying dissolute and anguished leading men, his performance as Onegin was pitch-perfect – suggesting by mere gesture, gait and vocal delivery, his character’s crippling cynicism. Liv Tyler was a much-less obvious casting choice, but her characterisation was equally effective as Fiennes’. Though clearly not the most polished of actresses, Tyler’s callowness and romanticism compliments Fiennes perfectly, and she absolutely looks the part as a young Russian beauty. Martha Fiennes also deserves credit for distilling the essence and themes of the poem so convincingly in her film. She retains something of the poem’s elusiveness by not making the narrative entirely linear, yet there is a pleasing concision to the plot that reaches its natural conclusion with Onegin wandering abjectly around the freezing streets of St Petersburg at the story’s end. (January 2010)

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