Oh man. This is embarrassing. I’m Netflix-stalking Toby Stephens. Such are the depths of my fannish depravity. And first in my queue was Onegin, also known as the Fiennes Family Spectacular – starring (and executive produced by) Ralph, directed by Martha, with music composed by Magnus. Apparently they wanted to save on a reunion that year, so they made a gloomy Russian lit pic instead. You don’t have to splurge on action sequences or big explosions because NOTHING EVER HAPPENS, and just when you think things are getting boring…nothing happens again.
Okay, let’s backpedal a bit. It wasn’t all bad. In fact, a lot of it was very good – or rather, was very close to being very good – which just made it painful when things fell short of the mark. Ralph’s acting as the title character was superb, and the photography was frequently mind-blowingly beautiful. The music definitely had me at hello, too – from the first wild, untuned gypsy violin riff that said “this is a Russian lit pic in which everyone has British accents.”
But the standards set by Onegin’s sullen but mesmerizing voice-over, the lush design and languorous camera movement, and the passionately harsh music, are like a row of dominoes trembling to be knocked down by the first attempt at story development or character interaction. In an introductory scene of privileged and dissipated St. Petersburg, intercut with Onegin’s subsequent departure for the country, it is already evident that there’s only one fully fledged character in this movie. Onegin is pictured lounging with his dandy friends, whose painfully affected speech and gravity-defying hair make them quite literally unreal. Like these nameless dandies, most other characters are props for Ralph, who seems to be the only thesp allowed to act unfettered by awkward writing or paltry screen time.
I didn’t know it was possible for a film that exists largely without voice-over to nonetheless rely more on telling than showing, but this one has pulled it off. There are a wealth of promising characters – romantic and naïve Tanya, pragmatic but faithless Olga, idealistic and un-self-conscious Vladimir. (Incidentally, these are the only given names that exist in Russian literature.) However, because all scenes of interaction are burned through to get to the sweeping landscape shots or solitary close-ups, most important conversations are spent by characters talking about who they are, instead of acting the part.
Vladimir (Toby Stephens) makes a striking first impression – Onegin comes upon him singing Schumann off-key in a forest – but there are only very few brief moments in which that initial character shines out, cushioned by several awkward conversations in which he describes his own nature and history to Onegin. These conversations are awkward because it is evident that this kind of discourse isn’t really in Vladimir’s character – wouldn’t he rather be talking about poetry, or the tragic lives of composers, or even taking more of those innocently humorous jabs at Onegin’s posh lifestyle?
So, Toby – like most of the other actors in the film, including Ralph Fiennes – shines most when he doesn’t have to talk at all. This is partially because of his excellent instincts for non-verbal acting, and partially because most of the movie’s dialogue forces him into an unnatural characterization. Now, I know there’s a whole rest of the cast to address, but I’m going to stick with Toby’s scenes because, alright, he’s the reason I watched the movie – and also because he’s the best example of the movie’s various faults and successes.
Let’s look at the duel. Of course there’s a duel. Duels are awesome, man.
But not for Vladimir, who challenges Onegin for the sake of his fiancée’s honor, and then quite realistically freaks out. Not the screaming, crying, wringing-hands freaking out that’s predictable and possibly even romanticized (check out Horatio Hornblower) – no, this is sheer terror, not simply of death but of the entire situation, the fact of shooting at a friend, of being shot at, at being required by obviously imaginary codes of “honor” and “courage” not to run away, and not to rescind the challenge and accept an apology. Toby manages this with stunning control – he’s not over the top, but his emotions are clear and powerful enough to send shivers down your spine. And all of this is wrapped up in a matter of seconds, with only two lines – “No reconciliation” uttered twice.
Here’s where the first huge mistake of the scene occurs. Onegin – with remarkable cool – commits to the duel and turns away. In a fraction of a second, Vladimir’s expression eases into something truly remarkable – partially relief, partially despair, partially - dammit. The camera cuts away. Cutting away from a look like that is like trimming the sound when a character is in the middle of a sentence – it just doesn’t make sense. And this is just one instance of a recurring mistake – the camera is always cutting before actions or expressions are complete, often when the changes are minute or slow, as if the editor didn’t have the patience to let it play out. The end result, however, is actually even more boring, because without those emotionally resonant moments, the viewer has no reason to care about the rest of the footage that she does get to see.
The remainder of the scene conveniently collects samples of the other major flaws of the film. There’s a jerky montage of independently meaningless close-ups that would be brilliant in a different film, but feels out of place wedged between the stunning, lingering long shots and crystalline facial close-ups that compose most of this one. Then there are long shots when you just want a good look at someone’s face, and wheezy incidental music when diegetic sound alone would have heightened tension. There are camera tricks like slo-mo or a starkly shallow depth of field when all you want is to see what’s going on clearly and in real time, and enough spinny shots to give me a dizzy flashback to 32 Short Films About Glen Gould. Finally, there are precious minutes of redundant filler that stand in for suspense. And the worst part is that many of these elements are exquisitely executed – they’re just all horribly misplaced.
I’d probably watch Onegin again, with only moderate use of the fast forward, simply to absorb the photography – but in order to satisfy my craving for character and coherence, I’ll have to track down the original poem by Pushkin to see what all the fuss is about. And for those who are motivated purely by Toby Stephens, you’re in luck – someone’s posted bits of most of his major scenes on YouTube, including his musical introduction and the first half of the duel scene. So, knock yourselves out, and then head back to Jane Eyre - he has better hair in that one, anyway.