As Evgeny Onegin, the luckless hero of Pushkin’s cruelly ironic tale of romantic reversal, Ralph Fiennes—his thin lips locked into a rueful half-smile—at least looks the part. But Onegin, directed by his sister Martha (their brother Magnus composed the overweening score), is never more than costumed frippery. Upon inheriting a country estate from his uncle, jaded aristo-dandy Onegin leaves behind St. Petersburg debauchery for a taste of rural life. He flirts with an impressionable, bookish girl, Tatyana (an expressionless Liv Tyler), and spurns her declarations of love, only to fall for her years later after she has married his cousin.
Pushkin’s verse novel is notoriously difficult to translate, let alone film. Unable to capture either its wit, psychological acuity, or formal rigor, the movie essentially reduces the schematic, seesaw narrative to doomy clichés. Martha Fiennes, an established music video director, gives the material a theatrical flash, which only highlights the abundance of lampoon-ready Russian-lit signifiers: a horse-carriage rumbling across snowy tundra, a fatal duel on a misty morning (try not to think of Woody Allen’s Love and Death), an ice-skating interlude. It’s been said, as a testament to its writer’s craft, that Pushkin’s story is one in which “nothing happens, twice.” With the Fiennes family’s version, you can unfortunately take that observation at face value.
Faithful to Guterson’s mechanical setup, the film (from a screenplay by Hicks and hack supreme Ron Bass) is distinguished by its vulgar notion of impressionism—the tastefully florid hyperreality of Hicks’s Shine has here exploded into a grotesque strain of middlebrow experimentalism. With random cross-cuts, baffling montage, overlapping dialogue, and a swelling choral soundtrack, Hicks undermines the elegant slate-blue solemnity of Robert Richardson’s cinematography (though as a longtime Oliver Stone collaborator, Richardson must by now be used to the Cuisinart treatment). Trying to act in this movie is like trying to stand upright in a blizzard. Hawke and Kudoh come off as purely decorative, and in any case, everyone is upstaged by Max Von Sydow. As the wheezing, doddering defense attorney, the old pro gives his lines—not least an overwritten, throat-clearing closing argument—a near-miraculous gravity. It’s a heartening display of force of personality cutting through bullshit: He turns a digression about his own mortality into the most moving thing in the film by far, and seems amazingly unperturbed that the novel’s unfortunate final line—the one about aortic compartments—has been assigned to him as dialogue.