Where's the samovar, Martha?

Onegin Director: Martha Fiennes Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Liv Tyler (135 mins; 12)
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The Independent Culture
If you were scripting a filmic adaptation of a 19th-century Russian literary classic, what would you choose for its opening image? What about a coach being driven through a snowy terrain? That would probably be your first, as they say, off-the-top-of-the-head idea, but you'd probably reject it at once as too obvious and begin racking your brains to come up with some other, less cliched establishing shot. Well, Michael Ignatieff and Peter Ettedgui, the screenwriters of Martha Fiennes's new Onegin - based of course on Pushkin's verse novel - didn't rack theirs.

In fact, Onegin is a clan-gathering of cliches, a convention of conventions. If, during a cultural free-association test, you were requested to say whatever popped into your mind on hearing the phrase "Russian literature", I guarantee that virtually everything you'd think of is up there on the screen. Snow, naturally, tons and tons of the stuff. St Petersburg. Skaters on the frozen Neva. A misty-morning duel. A genteel musical soiree. A languorously Byronic dandy. A plump, red-faced babushka. A country estate going to elegant seed. Even a bejewelled old princess playing endless games of solitaire in bed. They miss nary a one.

All right, you reply, point taken, but how can these visual stereotypes be avoided when you film Eugene Onegin? Actually, there are several legitimate answers to that question, the most evident being: you just don't film Eugene Onegin. What's the point? Pushkin is one of the most adapted and adaptable of authors - his work has inspired numerous operas, ballets, song-cycles and the like - but even the Russians themselves have shied from recasting his most celebrated fiction in cinematic form.

Divorced from the poetry, the irony and the pungent wit of Pushkin's narrative voice, the plot is trite and hand-me-down (not a problem in Tchaikovsky's opera). The novel's atmospheric trappings (see above) are just as common to the worst as to the best of classic Russian fiction. And the denouement (which the film, to its credit, though equally to its disadvantage as a satisfying evening out at the movies, refuses to betray) is entirely bereft of climactic punchiness. Eugene Onegin is famously untranslatable - I recall how, at university, my old Russian professor would struggle to convince his sceptical class that, when Pushkin employed the word for a tree, he contrived, by some alchemical process inexplicable even to native speakers, to invest that word not only with the sound made by the wind rustling through leaves but also with the odour of gnarled roots buried deep in the earth - and it therefore cannot be translated into film.

The film exists, though, so what's there to say about it? It may not be a vanity project, but it certainly feels like it. Martha Fiennes is the sister of Ralph Fiennes, who is both its leading man and its executive producer. The composer of the syrupy soundtrack score is Magnus Fiennes. I'm not sure what his relation is to the other two: the press kit describes him merely as "another talented member of the Fiennes family".

As the jaded fop who languidly pooh-poohs a daring declaration of love from the sister, Tatyana, of his friend Lensky's fiancee, only to fall headlong in love with her once she is married to another, Ralph Fiennes is much too old for the role (he looks as haggard at the beginning as he should at the end) and gives, to be honest, a rather Johnny-One-Note performance. It's almost as though his sister had an enormous placard placed on the set throughout the shoot on which she scribbled: "Be blase, darling!" He does wear the clothes well, however: every time he sits down, he shoots the tails of his frock coat even more expertly than he shoots his cuffs.

Liv Tyler is Tatyana. A few months ago, praising her deliciously gangly presence in Altman's Cookie's Fortune, I called her that film's revelation. I was premature. In Onegin, unbecomingly dressed and coiffed, she has reverted to pre-Cookie type, her beautiful oval features a black hole from which neither meaning nor emotion is allowed to escape.

As for Martha Fiennes's visual style, the model would appear to be Visconti, and the plushly upholstered banality of her mise en scene only confirms what an enigmatic artist he was. Marshalling scores of extras, zooming into one glittering objet d'art after another, positively wallowing in all the crystal and ormolu, he seemed to make his sumptuous period films in exactly the same way television directors make their classic serials. Yet his are masterly and theirs aren't. Why? Mystere, as the French say.

It's especially mysterious as he, too, was unintimidated by classic texts (he made film versions of Verga, Dostoevsky, Lampedusa, Mann and D'Annunzio); but he was perhaps the supreme exception to the rule that, in the cinema, the better the work adapted, the worse the adaptation is likely to be. It's really quite elementary - what might be called the hot-and-cold-tap syndrome. Consider: no matter how warm tapwater is, if it's poured into a bathtub half-filled with even warmer water, it cools it down. Likewise, bathwater, however hot, is heated still further by warmer water poured into it from a tap. Pushkin, the genius, is the hot bathwater and Fiennes, the tyro, the cooler tapwater. When the two are combined, the temperature is necessarily lowered.

Or, to have recourse to an even more simplistic metaphor, Pushkin and Fiennes are like vodka and water. Onegin is a work not of adaptation but of dilution.