Reviewed by: Charity Bishop
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Liv Tyler, Toby Stephens, Lena Headey, Martin Donovan, Harriet Walter | Directed by: Martha Fiennes | Produced by: Simon Bosanquet, Ralph Fiennes, Ileen Maisel | Written by: Peter Ettedgui and Michael Ignatieff, from a poem by Alexander Pushkin | Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films/Sterling Home Entertainment
With Liv Tyler’s stardom on the rise since her breakthrough performance as Arwen in “Lord of the Rings”, her lesser-known films are going to become more mainstream. Among them is this foreign production based on the classic poem of love and obsession, Eugene Onegin. A lot went into this film… from the hypnotic Russian setting to the gorgeous cinematography and stunning leading performance by Ralph Fiennes. Was it worth it? The answer is yes.
Opening in a cold winter in Moscow, we are introduced to Eugene Onegin (Ralph Fiennes, “Oscar and Lucinda,” “The English Patient”), a notorious playboy who has been called to the bedside of his dying uncle. Arriving too late, he is just in time for the funeral and takes up current residence at his uncle’s country estate. Country life bores him, but the flash and pomp of city sophistication no longer appeal to his tastes. Thus he is intrigued when he makes the acquaintance of some “local people,” Vladimir (Toby Stephens) and his lovely fiance Olga (Lena Headey).
Unimpressed with the “young, foolish, and flighty” Olga, Onegin turns his interest upon her younger and much more steadfast sister Tatyana (Liv Tyler, “Armageddon,” “Fellowship of the Ring”). In the course of borrowing a book, as she has done many times before from his uncle’s library, she learns to love him. Torn by her own quiet passion, she lives to catch glimpses of him. But country life remains dull in his eyes and he rarely comes out save with Vladimir. One night, unable to sleep, Tatyana writes Onegin an impassioned letter confessing her love and admiration and pleading to be treated with civility and gentleness.
Upon her birthday, the household is filled with guests… and among them is her secret love. But Onegin fears a life bound to one woman… and he cannot bear to put Tatyana through the inevitable pain of his unfaithfulness. Willingly he offers her back the letter but she refuses to take it… and refuses to deny that anything in it is other than her heart. Refusing her confession of love as gently as he can, he leaves her to cry in the summerhouse and returns to the dance. But his bad humor has been aroused, and he will make a volatile, fatal mistake that will end in bloodshed and change Onegin’s life forever.
With lush costuming, beautiful cinematography, and rock-solid performances, “Onegin” is an unusual kind of film. Moving along at a measured pace, it demands patience but also evokes obsession. It is a story of love, of tragedy, of circumstance, and of choices. I came to have it with sincere doubt, certain that my hopes would be dashed, so they were never raised. And for once, I was pleasantly surprised at the restraint and dignity shown to the production. When all other aspects are stripped away, it becomes a tale of loyalty. For that, it has my admiration and my praise. It also has one of the most stunningly picturesque and yet chillingly horrific dueling scenes that I have ever witnessed on film. The emotion and intensity of that tragic cold winter morning on the docks builds to an inevitable climax and the profound sorrow that it brings.
I much appreciated witnessing the victor’s anger, frustration, and sorrow over what he was forced to do. And the last scene in the film between the leads is magnificent. There is no other word for it… Liv Tyler is absolutely phenomenal as she professes that she will remain faithful to her husband, even though her heart belongs to another.
Fiennes’ sister directed the film, and his claims that she has a sensual power over the camera are true. Every frame is full of romantic intensity. I do question her reasoning for moments of complete silence, and the soundtrack at times is horrible, but overall I was impressed. Content-wise, for an R-rated film “Onegin” is wonderfully free of vulgar content. Some mild profanity and an occasional abuse of God make their way into the screenplay. There’s some brief breast nudity shown in pencil drawings.
The opening scene finds Onegin and his friends non-graphically joking about sexual intrigues. The reason for the rating comes from the pistol dueling scene, when one man is shot in the side of the head. We briefly see the impact before he falls to the ground; we witness blood crusting the side of his face in a later shot. A corpse is briefly viewed in a funeral parlor. One scene finds Tatyana and her husband in a romantic tryst. They kiss and embrace with her in his lap but no nudity or motion is apparent. (He does have his shirt off.) The period gowns are usually acceptable but one or two of them are rather low. There’s some mild innuendo, and Onegin is seen going into the home of a prostitute.
“Onegin” is a slow-moving epic with surprisingly few flaws. Those unaccustomed to the measured pacing of many period dramas will find it dull and bittersweet. But for me, the rewarding moment is when a woman chooses honor and commitment over fiery passion, and turns down a man’s plea. “I do love you,” she confesses, “but I am a married woman… and I will be faithful to my husband.” Wow. When was the last time we heard that come out of Hollywood?
Review reprinted with permission of www.charitysplace.com