Ralph Fiennes is fast becoming THE actor to hire to star in period romantic dramas
based on important (and arguably unfilmable) literary works. Having proven his mettle as
The English Patient and in The End of the Affair, adapted from the Graham Greene novel,
the actor has turned to Pushkin's tragic hero in a film version of the Russian classic Onegin.
He perfectly captures the ennui of this roué, a man of high station but without purpose, a
profligate who passes his evenings at the theater or with his latest mistress. With his almost
regal bearing and costumed to the nines by John Bright and Chloe Obelensky, Fiennes
certainly looks the part. The problem is that he excels in projecting the chilly aspects of the
character; when he is called on to be passionate and full of humor, those aspects seem to be
out of the actor's grasp.
Oh, I know there will be countless women who will claim otherwise but look at his oeuvre:
Amon Goeth in Schindler's List, Oscar in Oscar and Lucinda, Almasy in The English Patient.
These are characters that lack warmth. Technically one cannot fault Fiennes as an actor but
there is that curious lack in all his work. One might have thought that this director might have
been able to tap into some other side to him -- but then perhaps that side doesn't exist. Perhaps
what one sees on screen IS a manifestation of the real Ralph Fiennes. If so, more's the pity.
This director -- his younger sister Martha -- is a noted commercials and music video director
in England and she brings some of that panache to this film. Despite never having directed a
feature film, she proves a capable director, at ease with camera placement and movement
and wise enough to surround her stars with performers of grace and note (i.e., Toby Stephens,
Lena Heady, Martin Donovan, the greatly under appreciated Harriet Walter, even Irene Worth
shows up in an incisive cameo). As the leading lady, the Fiennes siblings settled on Liv Tyler
in what is a rather surprising but almost successful choice. Tyler has a coltish beauty and grace
that fits the character of Tatyana. Almost like the old cliché, she gives him sex appeal and
he lends her class. A stunning girl-woman, Tyler captures the spontaneity of the character
and is quite believable in her impulsiveness. She pours out her love for Onegin in a letter
which he cynically dismisses her feelings. At the screening I attended some of the women
in the audience swooned over this mismatched pair. Indeed, one is supposed to root for
them to get together but I was left unmoved, particularly in the penultimate scene.
There is much to admire in the production values (the already cited costumes, the
marvelous cinematography of Oscar nominee Remi Adefarasin, the opulent and detailed
designs of Jim Clay and art director Chris Seagers). The story (which has served as the
basis of an opera by Tchaikovsky) contains the requisite tragedies--a duel between friends,
unrequited love--and it is easy to see the potential the Fiennes siblings saw. Nevertheless,
that key sense of passion is missing between the two leads and dilutes the fine work of
everyone else. Tyler struggles and almost pulls it off until the deep emotions required of
her for a final parting fail her. Ralph Fiennes should reconsider playing all these pent-up
frustrated types or he will find himself trapped. As for his sister Martha, she clearly has
talent and I await her next opus.
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.