Project 365 – 29th Mar 2010

Posted: March 29, 2010 in Project 365
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Day 57 – Onegin

I was too busy today to even go out taking photos, so I took one of my desk to make sure I got one for the challenge. I had to finish an assignment (which I did at 3.30am!) of a film critique on ‘Onegin’ (pronounced On-yay-gan). As I’m a small bit tired I’m gonna copy my review here for today’s blog post. I’d definately recommend it as a film but be aware THIS REVIEW INCLUDES SPOILERS ON THE FILM!

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose”

In about 1823 a Russian nobleman named Alexander Puskin, while exiled, by order of the Emperor, on his country estate begins to write his novel in verse ‘Evgeny Onegin’. A tale of a tragic hero, ill-fated love and the consequences of actions, it struck a chord with people then as much as it still does today. In 1990 a young student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art called Ralph Fiennes began a nine-year love affair with Puskin’s most famous work. It was a love he would go on to share with his family that culminated in ‘Onegin’. Indeed with Ralph as the star and executive producer, his sister Martha directing, brother Magnus writing the original score and sister Maya on piano it begun as either a collaboration of similarly Puskin-passionate minds, or, to take a more cynical look, classic nepotism.

The story is one of Evgeny Onegin, a St. Petersburg nobleman disillusioned with his privileged life at the beginning of the 19th century in Russia. After a wealthy uncle’s death brings him to the countryside he meets Tatyana played by Liv Tyler, a neighbouring girl who takes a risk in declaring her love for him. From this moment his life starts to spiral into decline, he rejects Tatyana, insults the local landowners by making known his intention to give his uncle’s farm over to serfs and his final moment of descent, when he kills his friend Vladimir in a duel over Tatyana’s sister. Onegin departs only to return six years later to find Tatyana a married woman and his life as meaningless as before.

As director, Martha Fiennes winds the viewer on a wonderful artistically visual path through 19th century Russia. Shot on location and helped by an outside contractor ‘Snow Business’ the landscape shots are brimming with atmosphere and engaging in telling the story. This is especially highlighted by the contrast of the sprightly spring shot of Evgeny and Vladimir relaxing by the windmill with Tatyana in a boat nearby and the haunting chill of the winter fog at the same location for the ‘duel’ scene.

One of the most pleasing aspects of this film is the use close-up filming of detail. From the hooves of running horses to the quill spraying ink across the pages of a love letter, it is the detail that gives the film its authenticity. Without this we would merely have another ‘boy meets girl’ monotony straight off the Hollywood production line. Here, Fiennes creates a different type of realism that touches the viewer, puts them in the scene and lends to an even greater recognition and compassion for the emotions involved.

The rest of the cinematography is similarly in tune. Fiennes gives an impressive range of unusual angles, both warm and cold lighting, depth of field and the speeding up or slowing down of the film that supplements the narrative without making the viewer too aware of the technique involved. One can see the atmospheric influence of a career spent directing music videos and can appreciate the effort of making that last right throughout the film. For a director who is directing a feature film for the first time, that must be commended.

The fact that is it such a family affair is quite unusual but it hardly makes it unethical, in fact rather the opposite. As mentioned before it differs from the Hollywood congruence in terms of gritty realism, it also differs at quite a basic level, in its production. Ralph Fiennes is the executive producer with Ileen Maisel and Simon Bosanquet as producers. The elder Fiennes’ ardor for the poetry of the perceived ‘Russian Shakespeare’ is well known but less publicised is the fact that Maisel and Bosanquet were involved in the production of ‘The Twelfth Night’ and Wuthering Heights’ respectively. This dedication to adapting literature for the art of film, rather than for commercial or influential purposes, is also in stark contrast to the big Hollywood studios and indeed the modern world in their search for dominance. It frees all involved to make the film in a true and faithful way and doesn’t seek to sway the viewer toward any particular side. It asks the questions but leaves the viewer to find the answers for oneself.

‘Through a mirror, darkly’ (1 Corinthians 13:12)

One noticeable trend throughout the film is the use and quantity of mirrors, windows and other reflective surfaces. Unless Russia in the 19th century had a narcissistic self-obsession one must assume the connection between the theme of self-reflection and the almost Cubist manner in which the main characters are often portrayed through reflective surfaces. In fact the original novel was in itself almost a self-reflection. Puskin, himself, had echoes of Onegin. He was considered a bad person, he was sympathetic towards serfs and he was removed from his life in the city to live in the country. However, the most eerie parallel was the fact that he died in a duel similar to the one that was the pivotal point of his most famous novel. It was almost as if Puskin was looking into a mirror and attributing his fate to various characters of his fiction.

“I have measured out my life in coffee spoons” (T.S. Elliot –The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)

Onegin is a fascinating character and his treatment by Ralph Fiennes, in this, the first movie based solely on Puskin’s novel, is equally absorbing. From the very start he appears a troubled soul who sees through façade of a society obsessed with sophistication and trivial pursuits but yet can’t break away from it. He contains a brooding look that Fiennes has made his own. His weariness can be seen when he uses his uncle’s quote in the first person, “When will the devil take me?” He believes himself to be a bad person to whom marriage would mean a culmination into betrayal and mistrust. It is for these reasons he rejects the object of his desire in Tatyana. He is cynical to everything, including the possibility of finding love.

He meets the poet Lensky at his uncle’s estate. Lensky is an altogether happy individual who can find delight in simple things like listening to terrible singing simply because he is with the woman he loves. Something in this strikes Onegin but he is not willing to face that his friend’s world could be a reality and so pushes him away. The final straw is his cavalier ways in observing the boundaries that ought to exist between him and Olga, Tatyana’s sister and Lensky’s fiancée. He shows Tatyana that he is as bad as he says and Lensky that his perfect life might not be so perfect after all, as Olga could easily stray. Lena Headey gives a solid performance of the older, more practical sister. So practical in fact that the death of her fiancée merely means she will have to go find another man to marry, almost straight away.

The great tragedy of Onegin is that the choices he makes are so self-destructive. He is living a life of emptiness yet it is entirely in his own hands to change his fate. More lamentable is that it is his own fears halt him. His line, “I have no secret desire to be saved by myself”, is clinical and cold. Perhaps this comes from an earlier experience or a product of his upbringing, we are not made privy to his raison d’être, but we imagine some great barrier that has been erected that keeps him thinking about the possibility of true love. There is an inner need to shout at him in a hope that he would accept Tatyana’s love, but when we look deeper our own lives are riddled with the same barriers, albeit in different areas. Perhaps that is where the producers feel we will connect with the film.

This duel between Onegin and Lensky defines the romantic aspect of the film. The notion that honour can be reclaimed if one is willing to die for his love. The alternative was to refuse and be ridiculed. The whole process and its intricate rules propose a regressiveness about the society and the conventions they were expected to live by.

The romantic notion of love versus a kind of medieval expectation of marrying to gain a position in society dominates the plot. It also aligns with a Russian society attempting to modernise itself and being influenced by the perceived sophistication of France. There is a wonderful backdrop of a culture caught between two ways of living, a vision of the modern but a clinging to the past.

“Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why” (Kurt Vonnegut Jr.)

The fates of these ‘star-cross’d lovers’ are destined to be at odds. At first glance it seems their own actions or lack thereof cause the tragic events to unfold, but as the film passes it becomes obvious that there is another force at play. They are confined by the culture of their time. Onegin lightly puts his life on the line to observe the custom of the duel. Tatyana speaks of love early and is portrayed as a strong female character but is worn down eventually into accepting the words of her grandmother that marrying for “…love is a luxury a girl in your position cannot afford”. She resolves to keep her wows also, quite in contrast to the philandering we see today. We are left to contemplate just what might have been had tradition and expectation not weighed so heavily on the main characters.

Like any film Onegin needs to be understood in the context of where it stands. This screenplay adaptation comes from a poem in another language and obviously from the beginning that fact provided an issue with getting direct quotes to use in the film. The result is that the film lacks the verbal structure of a Shakespeare or Austen adaptation. There are very few memorable quotes on what, ultimately, is a film based on a classic piece of literature. Atmospherics can be fantastic but in the end they can only do so much, a memorable narrative might have gone a long way to providing even deeper character definition and succeeded in making this film great.

However one cannot claim the relative lack of commercial success of the film to a less than masterful literary script. Few films have this as standard. Onegin tries very hard to be faithful to the spirit of the tragedy and make it as real as possible.  It is in a disparity to the multitude of feel-good, happy-ending, head off into the sunset films that clog our viewing today. Onegin doesn’t give a Hollywood happy ending but neither does it give a conclusive ending to a lot of the themes running through its screen. It poses questions that become real and valid despite their origin in a work of fiction almost 300 years old. They are still as relevant today. It is a thought provoking work where an open mind can go a long way in enabling the viewer to embark on one’s own journey of self-discovery and reflection. The alternative is that it’s honesty is rejected in favour of a film that maps out all the paths the viewers mind is supposed to take.

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