Ralph Fiennes is dangerously close to being pigeon-holed as cinema's go-to guy for doomed, stoic, period lover roles. Save his ill-advised turn as Jonathan Steed in that unfortunate "Avengers" movie, the guy hasn't done anything but romantic tragedies since "Strange Days."
But since Fiennes doesn't look ridiculous wearing his hair in forward-combed curls while sporting waist jackets and paisley vests, here he comes again in the title role of "Onegin," a handsome, fire-and-ice adaptation of Alexander Pushkin's 1820s lit-soap of unrequited love, "Eugene Onegin."
Fiennes plays a restless, arrogant, idly rich, St. Petersburg gentleman dandy beset by high society ennui who spends a season at a newly inherited country estate. Unable to escape his cynicism, he's equally bored here and begins to toy with the affections of those he considers simple bucolic aristocrats from a nearby estate.
He befriends -- and frequently belittles -- Vladimir (Toby Stephens), whom Onegin (pronounced on-YEAH-geen) envies for his happy engagement to the beautiful and smitten Olga (Lena Headey). He also meets Tatyana (Liv Tyler), Olga's breathtaking teenage sister who is quickly consumed by an overwhelming crush on her aloof and indifferent new neighbor.
Directed by Ralph's sister, Martha Fiennes (and scored with insistently plinking violins by yet another sibling named Magnus), the picture takes a while to ramp up to the interesting bit -- which comes when Onegin's cavalier view of others' feelings backfires with tragic consequences. Martha strongly establishes her characters in the first couple reels, uncloaking their percolating passions in the process. The sense of place and time is vivid, too. The film gets an A+ for mood and atmosphere, photography, art direction and costumes.
But it stays so true to the story's dense, ponderous Russian literary roots that not much else is accomplished until the movie is half over.
Then comes Tatyana's gently rebuffed declaration of love, Onegin's impudent dance with Olga (unmistakably sexualized by shortness of breath and undulating, skin-tight close-ups) and his implication to the already incensed Vladimir that she would be easily seduced -- an insult that leads to pistols at 20 paces.
Now we're cookin'!
The last 30 minutes of "Onegin" -- its most emotional and tragic -- takes place six years later when the guilt-ridden anti-hero returns to Petersburg from soul-searching abroad to bump into a much matured and now unattainable Tatyana.
There are surprises in this last act I should have seen coming, but the picture is so artful in their revelation that I was clutched as the tables of desire turned cruelly and instantaneously against Onegin.
Nobody writes tormenting affliction among the aristocracy quite like the Russians, and in spite of Martha Fiennes admirable efforts, this film proves how hard such stories can be to translate to film. The character of the Czarist upper crust come across elegantly and the themes of heartbreak, discontention and life never living up to one's dreams are certainly efficacious.
Still, it's not until Onegin finds himself tortured by desire that the film becomes as engrossing as it should have been all along.
Fiennes (Ralph, that is) gives a sturdy performance of stilted airs and stunted emotions that explode on him when karma comes calling for his heart. Although after "The English Patient," "Oscar and Lucinda" and "The End of the Affair" he could probably play this role in his sleep.
The impressionable but intelligent Tatyana is a period variation on Tyler's fragile ingenue persona ("Inventing The Abbotts," "Stealing Beauty," "That Thing You Do!") and while she tends to be a bit whiny when called on to cry (this happens a lot in "Onegin"), I'm continually flabbergasted by what an adroit and adaptable actress she's become. (I never give her enough credit going in to a movie, always remembering her only as a teenage hussy in her daddy's Aerosmith videos.)
Even with admirable performances, however, until the potent third act, "Onegin" requires viewers to have patience and imagination enough to fill in for themselves some of the film's unrealized potential. As director, Fiennes (Martha, that is) failed to recognize this problem, which isn't enough to ruin the movie, but it does make getting to the good bits tedious.