Issue #12/67, June 17 - July 1, 1999  smlogo.gif

Krazy Kevin's Kino Korner

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A Fiennes Mess

As if we all don't have sufficient cause to despise the British after their stellar lapdog performance in the Kosovo crisis, Ralph Fiennes and various of his less famous siblings (minus Joseph, who's now a star in his own right and has no need of his brother's coattails) have given us Onegin--complete with world premiere here in Russia just in time for the Pushkin bicentennial. Of course, it would be easy enough to find fault with the inevitable blunders in an Anglophone film version of the beloved poet's legendary novel in verse. Inasmuch as my own knowledge of Evgeny Onegin derives primarily from a single reading fairly early on in my Russian studies and Vladimir Nabokov's
frequent attacks on rival translators' attempts to render the masterwork in English, however, it would probably be best to let Russian commentators provide the meticulous, exasperated nit-picking (which has in fact been so voluminous as to engender an article in The Guardian on the Russian backlash against the film; this in turn prompted Ralph and sis-director Martha to pen a self-righteous but flimsy letter in rebuttal using in their defense out-of-context quotes from a few of the more forgiving Russian reviews). I cannot help but note in passing, however, the predictable Western arrogance displayed by, for example, setting Tatyana's name-day during the wrong season and a lazy and/or incompetent dialogue coach permitting the various actors to unleash at least half a dozen different incorrect pronunciations of Lensky's first name (only Ralph's approximation comes close).

Anyway, this is all pointless pedantry, a cozy old critical crutch that masks defects of greater consequence. To those who were not raised on Pushkin's verse and other Russian staples, goofs such as these would be largely
irrelevant were the film itself entertaining, compelling, or even coherent for more than a few seconds at a time. Onegin also drags on like a bitch and labors through three or four premature false endings before the closing credits finally roll--all this despite clocking in at well under two hours. But I guess you're all pretty tired of hearing me voice that particular complaint. Moving on then.

Given the complexity of the production process and the considerable number of practically incompetent industry hacks ("professionals," as they're euphemistically referred to in your average middlebrow review) that are bound to be hanging around even the most low-key indie set, it's not terribly difficult to imagine the myriad ways of severely fucking a film. But there is perhaps no surer means of shooting yourself in the foot than to let nepotism govern your key hiring decisions.

Francis Coppola is the undisputed modern master of this little game, his familial loyalty first having threatened to corrupt his greatest work, then eventually and inescapably succeeding in doing so. I've spoken in the past of the manufactured career of his sister Talia Shire, but let's not overlook his wife's irritating documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now, the pinch-hit composing of his brother in the second Godfather (only a heavy dose of the music from the first installment averted what could easily have been a minor catastrophe), and of course the final straw of daughter Sofia in part III (it's unfair to scapegoat her for that film's abject failure as so many critics did, but this doesn't change the fact that she was truly awful). Nephew Nicolas Cage is merely the exception that proves the rule.

By all appearances, as Onegin's executive producer, Ralph Fiennes has set out to match Coppola's towering nepotistic accomplishments in the space of a single film. He gives sister Martha her first crack at the director's chair (her past work could only have been in feminine hygiene commercials or embarrassing "art" photography, perhaps both). Brother Magnus (whose only previous credit is 1997's Preaching to the Perverted, a film so obscure
Ralph and Martha: Siblings of Shite
that it yielded just one reader comment--and an uncharacteristically terse, disinterested dismissal at that--on the Internet Movie Database) provides the disordered music--anachronistic, minimalism-tinged Penderecki imitations during the moody opening, eventually giving way to drab faux-classical court compositions that Salieri would have refused to claim as his own. Ralph even manages to work in current squeeze Francesca Annis as a prostitute (or "courtesan," in the parlance of the times) in a distasteful foot-licking scene. No doubt any number of other, more distant relatives of Ralph made uncredited contributions as well.

As the man paying the bills it's only fair that Ralph should play the title role, in which he is not altogether unconvincing. Still, his Onegin seems too often to be cringing when he ought to be sneering. Toby Stephens is more uniformly ludicrous as Lensky. Looking rather like a Robert Downey with Donnie Osmond highlights, he got me thinking that maybe Downey could do a pretty good (or at least amusing) unbalanced, coke-head turn as the doomed young poet. Then again, the true American Lensky is the uncrowned king of the skinny, dickless wusses--Robert Sean Leonard. I could go on and on about Aerosmith progeny Liv Tyler's Tatyana, but mostly I wonder why the poor girl was made to put on a British accent. If they're going to be pointlessly Anglocentric (as in bushy-browed character actor Alun Armstrong's absurd cameo as Lensky's pushy second) in what's supposed to be a Russian story, why not cast a Brit chick in the first place?

Aw heck, it just doesn't matter. The British will get theirs soon enough. As will the rest of us, I imagine. In the meantime, you'll all probably feel compelled to go see Onegin regardless just because you're here in Russia or something. Did I mention that the latter two-thirds really drags?

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