Film: Cold hearts and coronets

The Big Picture
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106 MINS

A horse-drawn carriage thunders across a snowbound landscape. The flurry of wheels and hooves contrasts with the stillness of the passenger within - pale and shrouded like a ghost, he murmurs to himself: "When will the devil take me?" These fine images open Onegin, first-time director Martha Fiennes' adaptation of Alexander Pushkin's verse novel, and are an early indication of the way the film will combine heat and cold, wintry desolation and feverish flight.

And who better to embody the frosty hauteur of Pushkin's hero than Ralph Fiennes? We first see Evgeny Onegin at a musical evening in one of St Petersburg's grand salons, a bored and cynical dandy viewing his fellow guests through an eyeglass - the monocle of all he surveys. Both his hair and his lip are curled just so, while his eyes glisten with implacable disdain.

On learning he has inherited his late uncle's estate, he journeys to the countryside, presumably the last place on earth this fastidiously urban creature would wish to be. But once there he befriends a young poet, Vladimir Lensky (Toby Stephens), and through him meets his fiancee, Olga (Lena Headey), and her sister, Tatyana (Liv Tyler). The latter is drawn to Onegin, and writes him a letter declaring her love.

Though intrigued and disturbed by the girl's passion, he coolly rebuffs her: "I have no secret longing to be saved from myself," he tells her, and as if to prove it, he does the last thing in the world a man ought to do after rejecting a woman - he starts flirting with her sister. Sheer perversity drives him on, and Martha Fiennes catches the headiness of the moment in a wonderfully fluid waltz scene, the camera twirling madly around Onegin and Olga as they dance on regardless. This in turn infuriates Lensky, who challenges Onegin to a duel - those Russians - from which the latter emerges victorious but desolate.

It is important that the audience has stayed with Onegin up to this point, since his mischievous behaviour has not only broken hearts but cost a man his life. Fiennes makes him buttoned-up, remote, watchful - close kin of his doomed Count Almasy in The English Patient - though not much sense of a whole man emerges. What does Onegin actually do? He's rich enough not to work, he's not especially sociable and holds, in the context of early 19th- century Russia, radical political views. ("Serfdom is a feudal practice. No civilised society should condone it.") He reads a little, sketches rather poorly and, er, that's it.

Fiennes has a compelling, vulpine presence, and if it's possible to wear clothes eloquently, he does so here. Few have worn a top hat with such a mixture of swagger and seriousness, and the clack of his boots on St Petersburg's lonesome streets betoken a man who is in every sense well- heeled. Yet for those coming to Onegin without knowing the novel - ie a non-Russian audience - it's hard not to regard the central character as slightly insipid. While one doesn't doubt the sincerity of the Fiennes' admiration for Pushkin and his hero, we are getting this Onegin third-hand, a character not only drawn from a book but from a book few Westerners will have read in the original.

We have to take so much of the psychological complexity on trust, which is strained almost to breaking point once the narrative skips six years and finds Onegin returning a changed man to St Petersburg. What's different? His haircut, certainly - gone are the Byronic curls, replaced by a plastered down look better suited to, say, Uriah Heep. When at a ball he spots Tatyana, resplendent in a vivid crimson gown (more heat amid the chill), we are meant to feel his mounting torment over that fateful rejection. "I wasn't sure that it was you," he says. "And? Is it?" she replies, with a poise he hadn't expected. There's now a husband (Martin Donovan) he hadn't expected, either, underlining his tragic mistake.

Yet what spiritual changes have been wrought upon our hero in those six years never become clear, and the force of his tragedy is consequently muffled. Fiennes seems to shrink within himself in the closing stages of the film, a husk of his former self. But since that former self was narcissistic and unfeeling, what did he have to lose? One might feel his yearning more keenly if the object of his love were an overpowering presence, but Liv Tyler, beautiful as she is, hasn't the gravitas or vivacity of feature to convince. (Hats off to the casting director, however: Tyler matches up wonderfully as sister to Lena Headey.)

As regards the look of the film, Martha Fiennes has done a superb job, dwarfing her characters against the monumental grandeur of St Petersburg and making insistent counterpoints between the arctic rigour of the Russian climate and the burning intensity of thwarted passion. It feels like a labour of love, though this, as we know, isn't a guarantee of great film- making. Onegin is ambitious and honourable, but for all the devotion of Ralph and Martha Fiennes, it lacks the vital core of psychological truth. Robert Frost is reputed to have said that poetry is that which gets lost in translation. Where film adaptation is concerned, poetry is just one thing amongst many that tends to go astray.