It’s infinitely possible to imagine the world of Onegin without its characters, and that is perhaps the film’s principle strength. The darling child of Fiennes siblings Martha (director), Magnus (composer) and Ralph (seriously, he needs an introduction?), Onegin uses gorgeous, arthouse cinematography and a thrillingly sensual, psychological score to create a hypersensitive adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel of the catastrophic, pre-ordained love of permanently bored Petersburg dandy Evgeny Onegin and the bookish, virtuous Tatiana that resonates right down to the pores of your skin.
From the moment we first see Ralph Fiennes’ Onegin wrapped up in fur staring somewhat dejectedly out of a carriage window at a bleak landscape of frozen ice wondering ‘When will the devil take me?’, we know that we’re dealing both with a victim of le mal du siècle and with a fairly typical Russian hero. Having gambled away most of whatever money he possesses, he hopes to benefit financially from the passing of his estranged uncle, whose deathbed he is now obliged to grace with his happy presence. Naturally, he arrives at his uncle’s enormous country estate too late; discovers, incredibly, that country life is to his liking; and, through his near-execution of Schubert-belting neighbour and poet Vladimir Lensky (a young and utterly adorable Toby Stephens), comes to meet Vladimir’s future in-laws: his muse and fiancée Olga (Lena Headey), her mother Madame Larin (Harriet Walter) and Olga’s sister, the pathologically introverted Tatiana (an extraordinary Liv Tyler). Signs of growing attachment on Tatiana’s side are as clear as they can be for a character so movingly inscrutable, who (to us) seems to grow to love Onegin both because of the anti-feudal tendencies that he displays in proposing to rent his estate to the serfs and thanks to the mischievous influence of a copy of La Nouvelle Héloïse that Onegin lends her from his (now extensive) library.
Tatiana’s feelings finally reaching boiling point, she sends him a passionately-worded declaration by letter, which Onegin professes himself to be ‘moved by’, but sends her packing with allegations that a marriage would ultimately result in boredom and adultery and would therefore be of little benefit to her. He also expresses the opinion that Tatiana’s romantic imagination would have been captured by any stranger to have wandered into her secluded life, and somewhat heartlessly declares: ‘In spite of what you may think, I have no secret longing to be saved from myself.’ Tatiana cryptically replies, ‘You curse yourself.’
It is difficult for an audience to comprehend what Tatiana would see in such a jerk, the chemistry between them sometimes seeming to promise little other than sexual gratification. But then we should remember the scene in which Tatiana and Olga listen to their nanny telling their fortunes through the old practice of examining wax that is dripped into water. Tatiana, unhappy with Nanya’s assertion that she will marry a soldier, drips more wax into the bowl and asks ‘What does it say now?’, to which Nanya replies, ‘You can’t change your fate.’ That, regrettably, is precisely Onegin and Tatiana’s problem; a very Russian one. They’re bound together and cursed to eternal misery by fate. Banished from the Larins’ company for a far more serious reason than breaking Tatiana’s heart, a fact which she communicates to no one, Onegin travels for six years before returning to Petersburg to find Tatiana married (yes, to a soldier), transformed and pulling the strings at the very top of Petersburg society while living in perpetual repression of her real personality. This time, it’s his turn to fall miserably in love, and things spiral down and down in a whirlpool of catastrophe, tragedy and heartbreak until the film’s stunning conclusion.
The acting in the film is of an immensely high quality, with Liv Tyler in particular delivering the best performance of her career; managing to convey to us that Tatiana is passionate, intellectual, anti-Monarchist, a feminist and eventually unbearably emotionally repressed, all this in a character that is overly-fond of silence and is not given much dialogue. Ralph Fiennes wasn’t yet in the habit of playing thwarted lovers 24/7, so his performance is refreshing and multi-faceted, his transformation from smart-mouthed libertine to suicidal, somewhat spine-chilling wreck striking and exceptional in the way it inspires emotion, not all of it compassionate, in the audience. Tyler and Fiennes share a terrific chemistry fiercely indicative of the fatalist nature of their relationship, this and the exceptional skills of both actors providing us with two titanic, exquisite showstoppers in the two collisions (I hesitate to call them love scenes) between Onegin and Tatiana. The supporting cast is remarkable in its own right and is not in the slightest risk of being bulldozed, with memorable and all-too-short performances from Toby Stephens as the idealistic, naïve and easily-made-hysterical Vladimir and from the always-terrific Harriet Walter, who is every inch the slightly ridiculous Russian matron who makes herself a slave to French culture in an attempt to get her daughters married.
The film’s cinematography and music working in stunning counterpoint to the performances of the actors create an emotionally intense, unashamedly psychological film that leaves one in no doubt that one is dealing with the territory of the mind. There are many long, beautifully filmed sequences with no dialogue that say more about the characters than conversation ever could, such as the writing of Tatiana’s letter, which we see composed, but whose contents we don’t hear till the middle of the film’s second act.
The nocturnal setting seems to engulf Tatiana in the shame that she feels, and this is reinforced by the alternation between the childlike sadness and the adult grasping at reason of her facial expression as she writes; the dreamy score scorched by a Russian folksong and Tyler’s regarding her ink-stained hands as though they were stained with blood only increasing the tragic and primal nature of what she is feeling and how she expresses it. Tatiana’s transition from country girl to Petersburg society queen is also dealt with in a stunningly artistic, symbolic way as she walks through the dilapidated halls of a Petersburg mansion belonging to the aunt assigned to marrying her off; the servants in adjoining rooms become fewer and fewer the further away from her previous life she goes and the more alone she becomes; an enormous bay window opening with a disembodied creak behind her and shining on her like a spot light. By the time she’s reached the door at the end of the corridor and opened it, she’s not Tatiana anymore.
Not just a period drama, Onegin is perhaps above all else an arthouse movie. If you combine these two things, taken together with the exceptional acting, it becomes a great film both from a critical perspective and from its exquisite portrayal of raw human emotion, which it is able to stimulate in its audience as well as in its characters.