Evening Standard Onegin Interview

Monday October 29, 1999

Things going very Fiennes
by Neil Norman

Ralph Fiennes is nervous. The kind of nervous that makes you want to give him a cigarette even though he doesn't smoke. Those of a less sympathetic mien might attribute his anxiety to the fact that he is fearful of interviews and those who conduct them, ie, journalists. Sitting at a table at the top of an entirely empty club, located in an exceedingly narrow alley just off St Martin's Lane, he twitches like a small animal at my approach.

His handshake is none the less firm, his voice quiet but confident. The actor in him takes control. Whatever fears I may have had that he was about to run down the stairs, along the alley and into the back of the nearest taxi before I completed my first question are allayed.

It turns out that his current state of tremulousness is due largely to the fact that Onegin, the film we have gathered to discuss, is of rather greater significance to him than the customary freight of being its star. Based on Pushkin's great verse novel, Eugene Onegin, it signals the feature directing debut of Fiennes's sister Martha, whose career to date has largely been confined to pop promos, and includes a musical score written by his brother Magnus.

To complete the circuit of family commitment, Fiennes himself is credited as executive producer. The only one missing is Joseph, who was doing Shakespeare in Love on a neighbouring sound stage in Shepperton where Onegin was filming at the same time.

"I have a lot of anxiety about the film," Fiennes confesses. "I'm quite anxious as a person and I get quite knotted-up inside during filming about the state of the weather, people on set and things like that. I need to work with someone who can balance my anxiety with a stoicism. I'm a bit awkward about the title of executive producer. I had a lot of input and had final decisions on the script and the casting but I had nothing at all to do with the financial aspect of it. It has been quite a bruising experience."

So bruising, one gathers, that he refused to speak to any journalist who did not like the film. Having agreed to the conditions, I was quite prepared to economise on the truth of my opinion in the event that I found Onegin wanting. As it turned out, this ethical dilemma never arose. Onegin is an excellent piece of work, in spite of the flak it has received in Russia. Ah, the Russians.

"We had the most difficult time at a press conference in St Petersburg," recalls Fiennes. "Some people were very dismissive of the film. We were aware, for instance, that some of the music was anachronistic but one piece had Soviet associations which was inappropriate. Many intelligent critics dismissed it as an endearing error. Others have attacked us for reducing it to a simple love story. Russians feel that Onegin is not just a story but the voice of Russia. We decided to take out all the philosophical digressions and allow that aspect to rest entirely on the visual aesthetic of the film. We tried to persuade them that this was an English response to a Russian classic."

In this, he was partially successful. Muscovites responded more sympathetically to the film because, thinks Fiennes, Moscow is more acclimatised to international congress. In the central role of Onegin, the jaded aristocrat who spurns the love of the innocent Tatyana, kills his best friend in a duel and seeks redemption too late, Fiennes delivers a performance of ironclad subtlety. By turns melancholic and cynical, Onegin is a man who has damped down the fires of passion by sheer force of will only to find himself startled by their late-flowering flames.

This emotional aridity is, I venture, something of a Fiennes speciality. Indeed, terms like "passionless" and "glacial" have been used to describe his performances in other films. He seems genuinely taken aback by the suggestion. "I was aware some people thought that in The English Patient," he says, guardedly. "But I would be surprised if anyone thought me glacial in Oscar and Lucinda. I am interested in people who bury their emotions very deep. I am wary myself - maybe that's a fault =- of demonstrative emotions. They are used to reassure the audience." He sips coffee, resorts to diffidence.

"The two most recognised parts I have played are in Schindler's List and The English Patient. That's where it comes from. I'm not the best person to comment on my work objectively."

The shutters momentarily come down. It is evident that Fiennes's security antennae are unusually sensitive. He can handle criticism, but only just. And he will not countenance invasive questions about his private life. Enquiries as to his feelings about the progress and remarriage of his former wife, Alex Kingston, are discouraged. And the rumour that he and his inamorata, Francesca Annis, secretly married in Russia during the filming of Onegin remain a matter of conjecture. In terms of public pronouncements, of which this interview is a part, the work is the only subject under discussion. Luckily, there is a lot of it.

Since Onegin, Fiennes has completed Istvan Szabo's epic chronicle of three generations of a Hungarian Jewish family, A Taste of Sunshine, in which he plays three roles. And he also stars in Neil Jordan's film of Graham Greene's novel, The End of the Affair, about a doomed romance set in London during the Blitz. His large contingent of female admirers will be particularly pleased by the latter, a sort of Brief Encounter with knobs on, in which Fiennes engages in a series of explicit sex scenes with his co-star Julianne Moore. It is a gloriously moody film and re-establishes his credentials as a romantic hero - if that is the word - whose customary restraint only heightens the erotic quotient of the love scenes.

"What I like about Neil Jordan is that he doesn't talk too much," says Fiennes with the suggestion of a smile. "He just says, 'Do it again.'"

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