Where's the samovar, Martha?

Onegin Director: Martha Fiennes Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Liv Tyler (135 mins; 12)

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.

Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Jess Glynne is UK number 1

music

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor