As Utah Opera prepares to present the Utah premiere of Tchaikovsky’s sweeping opera, Onegin, the Tower Theater presents a one-night showing of the 1999 film of the same name. The film has also just been released on video. Both adaptations are based on Alexander Pushkin’s classic poem about love and obsession in imperial Russia.
Starring Ralph Fiennes as the tormented hero, Evgeny Onegin, the film is directed by Martha Fiennes, sister to Ralph. Brother Magnus Fiennes composed the music. Martha’s opulent film does a respectable job of fleshing out Pushkin’s lyric poem, a fairly simple story of spurned love and regret. The film is stunningly filmed, its visual splendor a perfect reflection of the 19th century romantic tradition it depicts. Remi Adefarasin, who was the cinematographer behind Elizabeth, is responsible for this sumptuous period piece. His artistry, evident in every scene, provides such haunting images as the fog-enshrouded dock that is the setting for the story’s duel. The director opts to play the aftermath of that scene in slow motion without sound, which serves to drive home its horror. The film can’t be faulted for its artistry. While it’s a measured and assured production, the emotion that should be at its core is missing.
Onegin is a cynical and bored aristocrat whose candor often borders on cruelty. The film has the same cool detachment as its hero, which makes it hard to feel sympathetic about the tragedy that ultimately befalls him. But that’s been a problem with many of Fiennes’ performances. His air of emotional detachment makes it hard to be moved by his characters. In this film, his portrayal of Onegin’s transformation from cold-hearted rationalist to pathetic supplicant doesn’t pack the emotional wallop it should.
Onegin is a restless and melancholy high-society playboy from St. Petersburg who inherits his uncle’s country estate. He’s bored with his life of leisure marked by countless salons filled with the vapid verses of poets, the off-tune strains of Schubert, and a tiresome parade of women eager for his company. If leisure in the city is trying, in the country it becomes an even more unbearable reminder of his lack of purpose.
On his uncle’s grounds, he meets and befriends Vladimir Lensky (Toby Stephens), who introduces him to the beautiful Tatyana (Liv Tyler). Though he’s impatient with the lack of sophistication he encounters, Onegin is instantly intrigued by Tatyana, who possesses a keenly curious mind. Wanting more out of country life, she often borrowed books from his uncle, and now comes to borrow them from Onegin. Soon, she falls desperately in love with the newcomer, a man used to being in control and saying whatever he thinks, regardless of the consequences. At a dinner party in his honor, he shocks his neighbors by announcing that he will rent his uncle’s estate to the people who farm it. Serfdom, he proclaims, is appalling. Tatyana is thrilled by the possibility of finding a kindred soul in Onegin, though he later confesses that he’s not really so concerned about the serfs. He simply doesn’t want the responsibility of managing the estate himself. He’s far too restless.
Lensky is engaged to Tatyana’s sister, Olga, but Onegin plants in him seeds of doubt concerning his young and foolish fiancée. Onegin is merely being honest, though his rare form of frankness offends the provincial Lensky. The lovelorn Tatyana, meanwhile, writes Onegin a letter pouring out the depths of her passion for him. At her name day celebration, however, Onegin calmly rejects her love, claiming he is beyond love and marriage and therefore is doing the noble thing. Where, he asks, could an affair possibly lead except to “a brief triumph, a moment of scandal.” He condescendingly tells her that her broken heart will mend. Later that evening, when he dances with a the flirtatious Olga, he sets into motion a chain of events that leads to tragedy for all four of them.
Onegin is a complex character, and Fiennes perfectly captures his melancholy. On the surface, Onegin is the epitome of cool sophistication, though inwardly he is clearly a tormented man. The arrogant young aristocrat comes to realize his love too late, and his regret turns into a pitiful sort of obsession. Therein lies the tragedy of Evgeny Onegin.
Liv Tyler gives her best performance in a surprisingly mature and poised portrayal of Tatyana, who once spurned will never soften to Onegin again. She tells an elderly relative that she won’t marry except for love, though the old woman tries to tell her that love is a luxury. “If you insist on love,” the old woman says, “find it outside the marriage bed.” But Tatyana insists that if she marries, she will remain faithful. And true to her word, she will do nothing to compromise herself, even if it dooms her to a hollow and empty life.
Though the film fails to be as emotionally moving as it could have been, it’s still well-worth seeing for its artistry. Think of it as research for a more enjoyable evening at the opera.
Onegin (R) HHH Directed by Martha Fiennes, starring Ralph Fiennes and Liv Tyler, will play at the Tower Theater Oct. 4 at 7 p.m.