Film: Cold hearts and coronets

The Big Picture




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.

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected