Monday, June 6, 2011

Onegin movie review

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A Japanese poster for the film. Isn't it gorgeous?!

Alexandre Puskin. Known to Russians as the father of Russian literature. His greatest masterpiece: Eugene Onegin. A novel in verse, it was first published in serial form from 1825-1832.

Fast-forward a century or two to 1992. Actor Ralph Fiennes happened to read Onegin, and it left a deep impression on him. He made a casual remark to his sister about the cinematic potential of the book. . .

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And so began a family project that culminated in the release of Onegin seven years later, in 1999 - directed by Martha Fiennes, starring Ralph Fiennes, and scored by Magnus Fiennes (with solo piano pieces performed by Maya Fiennes). The film received a mixed critical reception, and is today one of those lesser-known period pieces that deserves wider appreciation among fans of the genre.

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Evgeny Onegin (pronounced roughly Ev-GEN-yee An-YAY-gen) is a priviledged young man living a life of decadence and debauchery in 1820s St Petersburg society. Think of him as a cross between John Willoughby and Eugene Wrayburn, with a dash of Heathcliff thrown in. Or something like that. He is a rake, a dandy, and a cynic.

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Ralph Fiennes as Onegin, Lena Headly as Olga, Liv Tyler as Tatyana

When the news reaches Onegin that his uncle is gravely ill, he sets out on the long journey to his uncle's provincial estate - not out of solicitude for his uncle, but because he hopes to inherit a considerable fortune from him. He arrives at his destination to find his uncle already dead. Onegin is now the owner of a vast Russian estate, with hundreds of serfs under his dominion. He has no intention of managing his estate personally - that would be too much like hard work - and so makes plans to return to his former life in Petersburg as soon as he can find a suitable steward to oversee the property.

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During his temporary stay in the country, Evgeny has the opportunity to meet some of the neighbours - including a young poet called Lensky, and two young sisters: silly and flirtatious Olga Larina, with whom Lensky is in love; and quiet but passionate Tatyana Larina. Tatyana quickly falls desperately in love with Onegin, but her love is not requited.

I won't say any more, since as you know it is my policy to try not to reveal any spoilers in my reviews. . . Suffice to say, all does not end happily. (Well, duh! This is a Russian classic, after all!) However, poetic justice is done, and the ending is moving and satisfying, if not happy.

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Onegin is the most Byronic of Byronic heroes. As is typical of this sort of "hero", he is really a rather selfish and despicable character; yet not entirely devoid of humanity, and the viewer is compelled to feel some measure of sympathy for him in the end.

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Tatyana, on the other hand, is a wonderful heroine. Though she makes one or two fatal mistakes, she is a virtuous character and sticks to her moral convictions, even when to do so would mean great pain and unhappiness for herself. Her strength of character places her alongside the heroines of Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen.

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Liv Tyler gives the strongest performance I have seen from her, and she is preternaturally beautiful as always - though the rather severe 1820s fashions are unflattering. The only outfit she wore that I genuinely liked was the angelic white dress in that unforgettable final scene. (Well, it's not quite the final scene, but if you've seen the movie, you'll know which one I mean.) Her hair was styled in a much softer and more feminine manner in that scene, too. (Not that any of this really matters, of course; but I can't help being female. My apologies to readers who have little or no interest in something so trivial as clothes.) Oh, and the ice-skating outfit was also rather nice.

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Ralph Fiennes was also excellent, playing both the spoilt, apathetic socialite and the tortured, devoted lover to perfection. Ralph's hair and costumes were just as amazing as Liv's. He looked like Beau Brummell come to life. This is a side of Regency fashion that we don't see much of in Austen adaptations, because all of Jane Austen's heroes dress sensibly and impeccably. (Naturally!) But it is fun to see a genuinely foppish, extravagant character - like the young Onegin - all bedecked in late-Regency garb.

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Toby Stephens was good, too, playing an earnest, idealistic young man, not dissimilar to his character in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Onegin is definitely a must-see for Toby Stephens fans. Needless to say, it's an absolute MUST-see for Ralph Fiennes fans.

Also in the cast were Harriet Walter, Jason Watkins, Alun Armstrong (he seems to pop up in everything), Lena Headly, and Martin Donovan.

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Yes, there's a duel. . .

Now, the unpleasant part of any Christian movie review. Objectionable content. Isn't "objecionable" such an ugly, squirmy word? And "inappropriate" is nearly as bad. Anyway. Onegin is suitable for mature audiences due to mature themes. Onegin is a rather immoral character, after all. However, the R-rating in America is unmerited and inexplicable. A PG-13 would have been much closer to the mark. There was only one scene that I fast-forwarded - a somewhat intimate scene between husband and wife which wasn't graphic or inappropriate (ugh! That ugly word again!) but I FF'd it nonetheless. There was also one somewhat gory scene during which I blocked part of the screen. I just can't handly ANY blood or gore, LOL.

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The production values for Onegin were universally excellent. The soundtrack is for the most part haunting and effective. The film was shot on location in England and St Peterburg, and the scenery is stunning. The cinematography is outstanding. The costumes and hair design were, as mentioned, impressive.

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It isn't a perfect film. This is a dramatic story, but some of the scenes felt slightly overdone, to the point of being melodramatic. Also, the scenes I mentioned above could have been handled with a little more restraint. This didn't have to be an R- or even a PG-13-rated film - it could easily have been a PG.

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However, it is a haunting, thought-provoking story, with memorable performances from the two leads. As Charity Bishop mentioned in her review, it's rare to come across a movie that actually upholds marriage and commitment, rather than excusing unfaithfulness and immorality in the name of some vague notion of "true love".

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Onegin (the film, not the character) is: hypnotic, sad, beautiful, mesmerising, unforgettable. A work of art.

If you can't appreciate this kind of story (most of the critics didn't), you're a jaded old cynic with no soul, worse than Onegin himself. So there.

4 out of 5 stars. Recommended for mature teens and up.

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Ralph Fiennes, Liv Tyler, and Martha Fiennes.

Links:

Interview with Martha and Ralph Fiennes
Interview with Ralph Fiennes
Photo Gallery 1
Photo Gallery 2 
Charity's Place review
IMDb

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Having loved the movie, I can't wait to read the book, and hope to do so very soon. Can anyone recommend a good translation? (Marian??)

Discovering Onegin and reading Anna Karenina at around the same time earlier this year has inspired in me in an interest in Russian culture and history. . . My mother says we have a Russian ancestor - I must remember to ask Grandma about it sometime. . . Meanwhile, I have yet another country to add to my list of places to visit when I go on my Grand Tour of Europe someday. ;-)

I couldn't resist including a bunch of photos. My apologies if you are on a slow internet connection. . .

Images 8, 12, 14 & 16: credit to LovelyLivTyler.com 

6 comments:

Marian said...

Thanks for the review! :) I might give it a try...I love the book, and it was the first Russian classic I read entirely. I read the Oxford World Classics translation, which is in keeping with the "Onegin stanza" rhyming scheme; it seemed like an excellent translation to me, though perhaps too modern at times.

OldFashionedCharm said...

Thanks for this lovely review! I've been wondering about Onegin because it's often listed when I'm looking up other period dramas of the same kind. I've never yet seen an Anna Karenina adaptation. These films with Russian culture are interesting because they are so grand and sweeping but often seen to have darker and more depressing plots. I started watching Doctor Zhivago once and it was a horribly depressing and sad so I didn't finish it.
Thanks also for telling how to pronounce the names, I especially wondered about Onegin.

~Miss Laurie
Old-Fashioned Charm

The Editrix said...

Great, thanks for that Marian!

Laurie - I will try to get to work on an Anna Karenina movie review soon.

I started watching an adaptation of Doctor Zhivago too, and I also had to stop.

I do like Russian litarature (and adaptations thereof) but I have to be in the right mood, LOL.

Alexandra said...

Hmm, this sounds really good! I've heard some songs from the opera Eugene Onegin but never seen a film version! Have to look this up. :-)

Charity said...

I like this movie. I'm not sure why, maybe because I like the moral of the story and the ending, which is not what I expected. I do think that it's a tad dull at the start, though -- I usually begin the film when Tatyana appears (which saves me from the humdrum beginning and ear-grating Russian music as he travels across the snow). Love the duel scene, though -- so gorgeously filmed and heart-wrenching.

The Editrix said...

I didn't mind the Russian music. Maybe it's an acquired taste. :-)