"Onegin" is an elegantly wrought, deeply felt film based on Alexander Pushkin's 1831 novel in verse, which in turn inspired Tchaikovsky's 1879 opera.
The very model of a literary adaptation to the screen, it stars a perfectly cast Ralph Fiennes and marks a remarkably assured feature directorial debut for Fiennes' sister, Martha, and also a splendid opportunity for their brother Magnus, who composed the film's spare yet evocative score.
As a period piece the film is breathtaking in its beauty and authenticity, its production design a work of symbolically decayed grandeur. Like the novel, the film plays an effortless simplicity of style against a rich complexity of character in flawless fashion.
Fiennes' Onegin is a St. Petersburg aristocrat, a jaded, bored playboy swiftly running through his inheritance. He receives a magnificent reprieve when he inherits from his uncle a vast country estate, complete with a Greek Revival palace and serfs beyond count. He's delighted to escape St. Petersburg society, yet too cynical not to be his usual candid and direct self with the landed gentry, who are intimidated by his sophistication.
He immediately scandalizes his neighbors with his declaration that he intends to lease his land to his serfs, a notion that strikes a sympathetic note with the lovely Tatyana Larin (Liv Tyler). More significant is the mutual attraction between Tatyana and the dashing newcomer, to whom she impetuously sends a letter declaring her love. Onegin, though attracted, does not return the ardor and tells her so in an honorable manner.
In the meantime, Onegin's candor has had dire consequences, sending him into a six-year exile. When he next encounters Tatyana she has become the regal wife of his cousin, a prince (Martin Donovan). Now it is his turn to become love-struck.
"Onegin" is more than a romantic tragedy; it is the tragedy of a man who does not know himself - and his heart in particular - as well as he thinks he does. "Onegin" is a pleasure in all ways, including Jim Clay's resourceful yet consistently stunning production design and Remi Adefarasin's lush yet rightly somber camera work. In bringing to life the long-vanished world of the Russian nobility, "Onegin" strikes a timeless note of eternal love and loss.
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Liv Tyler, Larin Martin Donovan, Toby Stephens, Lena Headey
Directed by Martha Fiennes
Released by Samuel Goldwyn Films
Running time 1 hour, 46 minutes
Rated Unrated (adult themes and situations )
Sun score * * * 1/2