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Total Film

December 1999

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Director Martha Fiennes
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Toby Stephens, Liv Tyler, Lena Headey
Cert 12

Rating ***

With Ralph Fiennes taking the title role and acting as executive producer, sister Martha at the helm, and brother Magnus bashing out the score, this tragic yarn of love lost in 1820s Russia is truly a family affair (shame there wasn't a spare sibling role for Joseph). Fortunately for the Fiennes clan, Ralph's fairy godbrother role in steering the Alexander Pushkin classic onto the big screen hasn't resulted in a humbling, egg-on-face conclusion. This is an accomplished period piece, stylishly directed and sumptuously realised.

Ralph and Martha had been hatching plans to adapt Pushkin's verse novel long before Schindler's List propelled Ralph to stardom. While he was off boosting his profile, Martha was making a name for herself as one of Britain's top commercials directors. She has Ralph to thank for her big break, but (courtesy of lush imagery, concise storytelling skills and splendid use of exotic St Petersburg locations) comes off better than her brother. Not that there's anything wrong with Fiennes' performance as a jaded city slicker whose emotions are as chilled as the Russian winters; you just can't help feeling that you've seen it all before.

What's pleasantly surprising is how effective Liv Tyler turns out to be as the uncomplicated Tatyana. Whatever her limitations as an actress are, the camera relishes Tyler's blend of Slavic beauty and childlike innocence (even if the leap to womanhood is a bridge too far). Praise also goes to Lena Headey as Tatyana's sister and provincial flirt Olga, although Stephens fails to live up to Lensky's tragic potential, deflating the film's impact.

When the emotional wallop that Onegin has been coiling to deliver finally arrives, it feels more like a limp-wristed slap. Still, it's difficult not to be moved by the plight of a man who learns to love too late, and the woman who must suffer the consequences of his decision for the rest of her life.

Although it's an English telling of a classic Russian novel, this period tragedy is different thanks to fantastic locations and modern direction. Becoming engrossed by this simple tale, however, will prove overly laborious for fans of multiplex blockbusters.

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