It is tightly constructed as well, boiling the story down to the dynamic between the two leads and showing the shifts in circumstances that lead to the tragic ending signalled from the beginning as the titular hero laments: “When will the devil take me?”
Evgeny Onegin (Ralph Fiennes) is a sophisticated socialite who leaves St Petersburg to stay in the country pile he has inherited from his dead uncle. Whilst in the country he makes friends with Vladimir Lensky (Toby Stephens) and attracts the attention of young country girl Tatiana Larina (Liv Tyler). He rejects her, a decision which comes back to haunt him.
Fiennes’ performance shifts tone perfectly; he is flippant and witty at the beginning, preventing the film from being a wallowing misery fest, but as his carelessness results in a tragic event, the outpouring of his emotions is heart-breaking. This isn’t a film about stiff British upper-lips and silly people who can’t admit their feelings, even if it seems that way on paper. Despite the period setting, it resonates with modern times, pitting the cynicism of Onegin and city sophistication against Tatiana’s naivety and the simple ways of the country.
I’m not sure that Liv Tyler is entirely convincing at the start; she feels more comfortable in the second half of the film. Director Martha Fiennes (yes, she cast her brother as the lead) does most of the work in portraying Tatiana’s crush; the scene in which Tatiana pours out her feelings for Onegin in a letter is nicely done. Far from using the standard method of a woman hunched tearfully over a writing desk, we have Tatiana kneeling on the floor scribbling furiously and getting her hands covered with ink.
The film even looks nice; The Grand Budapest Hotel has a bold aesthetic but I’m not sure that it looks particularly pleasant. Colour is used effectively; you could argue that having one character dressed in black and the other dressed in white is a bit obvious in showing their opposing opinions but it really works. Even the shorthand of woman wearing a red dress in a sea of white dresses is effective; another example of how Fiennes manipulates the film to press all the right emotional buttons without anyone saying a word.
It’s a shame that the film isn’t critically well-regarded and wasn’t commercially successful (maybe people couldn’t pronounce the title!); it ticks the standard costume drama boxes- being exciting, romantic and tragic- but shows a little flair.