Though this is very much an English rather than a Russian “Onegin,” the heart of Pushkin’s celebrated classic pumps firm and full in debuting director Martha Fiennes’ richly textured pic version. Headlined by older brother Ralph Fiennes’ commanding perf as the lassitudinous socialite brought low by a bad case of amorous mistiming, “Onegin” may not appeal to more cynical viewers unprepared to take the emotional leap of faith the movie demands. But, in the hands of tony distribs, it could notch up warm specialized business in upscale situations.
Pic is luxuriantly lensed by British d.p. Remi Adefarasin (“Sliding Doors,” “Elizabeth”), with a rich palette of deep blacks, snowy whites and warm ochers, and has a physical feel for the textures of clothing, fabrics and vittles. Despite its look, however, the movie is not so much concerned with scoring modern points about the moneyed classes as creating a resonant cinematic frame in which to tell a simple, rhapsodic tale of a sophisticate meeting his match in an uncomplicated young woman whose love he initially spurns.
As befits a director who cut her teeth on commercials and musicvids, Martha Fiennes shows a natural talent for conciseness and individual moments combining music and imagery. The film has plenty: Onegin’s first glimpse of his future beloved has a magical quality in which time seems to stand still, and later sequences — a sumptuous St. Petersburg ball, the bourgeoisie skating on ice and Onegin’s final storming of his beloved’s inner sanctum (set to the “Mir ist so wunderbar” ensemble from “Fidelio”) — are equally memorable.
What’s striking is that the film is not just a collection of visual set pieces. Stripping away the dialogue into almost Pinteresque exchanges, and giving the well-chosen cast time to develop a physical language for their roles, helmer Fiennes manages to draw the viewer into this particular universe of almost pure emotion. In that respect, and in its underlying simplicity, pic is true to the spirit of Pushkin’s original (written as a “verse novel”), even though the performance style is WASP rather than Slavic and purists may niggle at alterations and occasional anachronisms.
With the briefest of main titles, the movie opens with the bored, weary Onegin (Ralph Fiennes) speeding on a troika through the snow, leaving behind the social whirl of 1820s St. Petersburg and past affairs. An uncle has died, leaving Onegin a vast estate in the countryside that he feels compelled to visit on account of his depleted finances.
Onegin befriends his younger neighbor Lensky (Toby Stephens), who drags him along to meet his spirited fiancee, Olga (Lena Headey), and her ingenuous mom (Harriet Walter). While paying polite lip service to these small-time, rural aristocrats, Onegin also meets Olga’s older sister, Tatyana (Liv Tyler), whose freshness and openness intrigue him.
Tatyana is entranced by Onegin, who speaks his mind and whose forthrightness is misunderstood by Lensky as condescension. She impulsively pens him a love letter, which, during her name-day celebrations, he coolly rejects. The scene, set in a decaying summer house, is the first real test of Fiennes’ restrained performance, which the thesp, too often cold and mannered in previous pictures, manages with a beguiling mixture of bottom-line realism and simple fear.
Lensky, sensing the attraction, challenges Onegin to a duel, even though neither his nor Onegin’s heart is in it. At dawn by a lake, with the etiquette immaculately detailed, Onegin ends up reluctantly shooting his friend and, heartbroken, disappears from view. Six years later, he returns to St. Petersburg society, where he meets a changed Tatyana and asks for a second chance — with devastating results.
Fiennes’ particular screen talent finds a rare match in Pushkin’s antihero, whom he transforms into a strong, virile presence whose attention span may be short but who has the conviction of his feelings. It’s a perf that makes sense of his rejection of Tatyana and his reluctant slaying of her future brother-in-law in terms of unshakable values rather than pure cynicism. Equally important, Fiennes looks good in period costume.
Surrounding players are excellently chosen, with even the most surprising choice — Tyler as Tatyana — acquitting herself well. Adopting a perfect, neutral English accent to fit in with the Brit cast, thesp is a little gushy in her love-letter voiceover but is aces in her final scene with Fiennes, memorably staged in almost theatrical style in a room of whites, blacks and golds.
Stephens makes a good impression as Lensky, especially in his early man-to-man scenes with Fiennes, and, as Tatyana’s younger sister, the strong Headey leaves one wanting more. In a small but pithily drawn role, an Anglo-accented Martin Donovan is fine as Prince Nikitin, visibly savoring the script’s brevity. Veteran actress Irene Worth, almost unrecognizable, cameos fruitily as a bedridden society grande dame.
Integration of St. Petersburg exteriors, English locations and studio work at Shepperton Studios is seamless and convincing. Pic, screening at the Toronto fest, had its official world preem in late May in St. Petersburg.