Onegin

on December 17, 1999 by Shlomo Schwartzberg
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   Adapting one of the most famous works by Russia's national poet Aleksandr Pushkin is risky if you're not Russian. Not only do you have to capture the nuances of the country's mood and people, you also have to make the film's period, the late 19th century, come alive. In that, and despite the fact that the movie is in English, director Martha Fiennes, in her debut, doesn't do too badly. However, miscasting and a tepid love story undo all her best efforts.
   Martha's brother Ralph Fiennes plays Onegin, a dissolute, uncaring St. Petersburg nobleman who unexpectedly inherits a country estate from his uncle. He wants nothing to do with its day-to-day upkeep, but a chance encounter with a neighbor, the lovely Tatyana (Liv Tyler), changes him in subtle ways he doesn't initially comprehend. Tragedy ensues and many years later, a now besotted Onegin meets Tatyana again, with unexpected results.
   Fiennes is quite adept at drawing out Onegin's ennui but he compels only as long as Onegin is disgusted with his existence. When he becomes love-struck, Onegin also turns conventional and dully familiar. Fiennes' tortured acting in those scenes is now old hat for him. It doesn't help that he is also stuck with playing opposite Tyler, who isn't at all convincing as a Russian. She seems to have wandered onto the set off a California beach. (Onegin's complex relationship with Tatyana's soon-to-be brother-in-law, played well by Toby Stephens, is more gripping.)
   To the film's detriment, Martha Fiennes also downplays the emotion that all great Russian literature harbors. And brother Magnus Fiennes' overly melancholy score only drags the proceedings down further. Shot in dark hues and shadows, "Onegin" does make an impact but, finally, it's a dour, dull movie. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Liv Tyler and Martin Donovan. Directed by Martha Fiennes. Written by Michael Ignatieff and Peter Ettedgui. Produced by Ileen Maisel and Simon Bosanquet. No distributor set. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 106 min
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