Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Martha Fiennes retrospective & pantheon movie of the month - ONEGIN

Martha Fiennes' feature length directorial debut, ONEGIN, is one of the most impressive films I saw during my university years. I strongly remember wandering into the local arts cinema with a motley crew of scoundrels, more out of passive boredom than out of an active decision to watch the film. We all left the cinema in complete silence, walking back to my flat without discussing the film at all because we were so wrapped up in our own emotions and reactions. Despite our very catholic taste in film, we all later agreed that it was a desperately moving and brilliantly executed film.

The first great success of the film is its translation and adaptation of the classic Pushkin poem. Peter Etedgui and Michael Ignatieff - a writer, historian and public intellectual - manage to preserve the characterisations, wit, beauty and even some of the lilt of the source language without making the characters speak dialogue that feels cold and anachronistic.

The second great success of the film is Martha Fiennes' particular visual style. Her camera moves elegantly around ball-rooms and through corridors, and has a very fluid, sensuous feel. Moreover, she has created sets and costumes that are rather stylised. So instead of a static, crowded, 100% historically accurate "BBC costume drama" feel, we have a sense that the characters are real and have room to move and breathe.

Finally, the casting is, with a few exceptions, absolutely spot-on. Ralph Fiennes is perfect as the anti-hero, Onegin. His face is almost immobile, his voice barely raised to inflection, in the early scenes in Petersburg. He is manifestly bored by society, bored further by his idea of the country and, as we meet him in the opening scene, wrapped in furs, wandering when "death will take me". Later, when he comes to realise the value of the innocent love that Tatiana Larina offered him - and which he patronisingly rejected - Ralph Fiennes will transform Onegin into an uncertain, weary, perhaps deluded figure, huddled in a blanket on a freezing Petersburg balcony, forever waiting for the love letter that will never come.

Playing against Ralph Fiennes, Liv Tyler is outstanding as Tatiana - the young girl who offers herself to Onegin, only to be rejected, and then martyrs herself in a loveless but faithful marriage to a dull but worthy man. Tyler always manages to convey passionate emotions and profound thought just behind her very proper and conventional surface. And, of course, it doesn't hurt that she's so beautiful. There's also a wonderful little scene where her rich aunt has praised her skin and Tatiana, perhaps for the first time, turns to a mirror and assesses her value on the marriage market, with some evident pride.

In the smaller roles, we have some economically sketched and wonderfully portrayed cameo performances by British character actors. Harriet Walters is suitably spiky and thwarted as Madame Larina; Simon McBurney is very funny as the oleaginous, pretentious French tutor Triquet and Irene Worth is magisterial as the pragmatic, amoral Petersburg matriarch Princess Alina.

If there is a flaw with the film, I think it's in the casting of Tatiana's sister Olga, and her lover, Lensky. In fairness to Lena Headey, she doesn't have much to do as Olga, other than flirt, but I've always found Headey curiously lacking in screen presence and unable to portray depth of characterisation. Toby Stephens isn't bad as the simple-minded but honest country lord and aspiring poet, Lensky. In other roles I have found Stephens irritating - he always seems to come across as arrogant and dull-witted, no matter what the part. Luckily that is not a distraction here, although I think the scene where he thinks Olga is flirting with Onegin is horribly over-acted.

But perhaps the real skill was in choosing to adapt the poem in the first place. I've always thought that the more closely drawn and sparely populated the source material, the better the film. Sprawling epics are rarely done justice on the big screen. Collapsing WAR AND PEACE into a two-hour romance necessarily degrades it, and few film-makers have the unlimited budget offered to Sergei Bondarchuk. On the other hand, look at the wonderful recent adaptation of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN - a short story with a cast of maybe two main and two secondary characters; a few key dramatic episodes; and lots of room for the film-maker to take a lyrical and patient approach. ONEGIN is another example of a source text that is richly but tightly drawn, with a handful of key protagonists, a few key episodes but a profound and unforgettable emotional journey lying underneath it.

Fiennes carefully contrasts the prattling posers in Petersburg with the more straightforwardly socially aspirant country society. Amidst all the useless beauty, Onegin spots Tatiana Larina and is intrigued by her honest integrity, intelligence and curiosity. He sees her worth and while he does not consider her as a lover, he sees how much more she is worth than her flirtatious superficial sister Olga. Onegin's relationship with Lensky is, in some ways, even more interesting. Lensky is a fool, but honest, and honestly in love with Olga. One imagines that Onegin's intelligence and cynicism is offended by this ridiculous and yet apparently deeply felt love. Offended even more when it is thrown into contrast by Tatiana's genuine offer of love which Onegin, jaded, high-handed, cannot accept.

Perhaps it is the ludicrous nature of the contrast between the romance between Olga and Lensky - and the romance he won't permit between himnself and Tatiana - that leads Onegin to cruelly expose the emptiness at its heart. He dances with Olga, Lensky is enraged, they duel, and Onegin kills his friend. He has destroyed a second-rate sort of love affair, but he curses himself in the process. He has learned the true value of Tatiana, of his capacity for love, and the true hell of an empty and solitary life. All this is captured with a delicate camera, sensitive performances and without the dessicated feel of a period drama, in Martha Fiennes' wonderful film.

ONEGIN played Toronto and Venice 1999 and was released in the UK and US that year. It opened in Israel, South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Portugal, Spain, the Philippines, South Africa, Germany and Poland in 2000 and in Hungary and Hong Kong in 2001. It is available on DVD.

No comments:

Post a Comment