Fiennes' 'Onegin' gaffes lead to media cold war
(Fri-Sun, June 4-6, 1999)
By Nick Holdsworth - The Hollywood Reporter

MOSCOW -- Stung by criticism of musical anachronisms in Ralph Fiennes' new film "Onegin," the producers, Seven Arts, tried in vain to restrict press access to the world premiere in Moscow Thursday.

The film, directed by Fiennes' sister Martha Fiennes, is based on the verse novel "Eugene Onegin" by Russia's most famous author, Alexander Pushkin, and it opened in Moscow just before celebrations begin Sunday marking the 200th anniversary of the poet's birth.

But criticisms published in some British newspapers this week following a special screening in St. Petersburg, so upset the producers that they tried to prevent Western reporters from attending the premiere.

An invited audience of art critics and literary specialists in St. Petersburg were shocked by what some said was an anachronistic musical score in the film. In one scene, set in early 19th century Russia, characters at a country house are seen singing a song most Russians think of as a folk tune from the 1930s.

"Oh, Let's Run to Pick Berries in the Forest," was a popular song in Stalin's time and to the Russian ear, a glaring anachronism. The "Manchurian Waltz," heard in some ballroom scenes, is also strongly connected with the 1940s, Russians say, as it is often heard in old World War II movies. Reports in several London dailies suggesting that the Fiennes' movie had committed a faux pas as Russia prepares for nationwide celebrations of their national poet's anniversary, caused consternation among members of the film's team in Russia for the premiere.

A British embassy reception Wednesday night, at which Ralph and Martha Fiennes, distributors and producers were present, was marred when Seven Arts president Daniel Diamond attempted to retrieve tickets given out to journalists among the guests.

Diamond, worried by negative coverage in the British press, told The Hollywood Reporter that the Russian premiere was a special event paying tribute to Pushkin's anniversary and press reviews were not welcome before the film's release in Britain and America, likely to be in the fall or later.

But Russian newspaper, radio and television journalists had already been allowed unrestricted access to a press screening of the movie earlier in the week.

Seven Arts' efforts to restrict access failed, but according to Russian members of the audience at the Pushkinsky Film Theatre in central Moscow Wednesday night, the producers have nothing to fear.

The film follows the plot of Pushkin's story reasonably faithfully -- charting the tortured relationship between the bored dandy Eugene Onegin and the beautiful aristocrat Tatiana. Only brief laughter rippled through the audience of more than 1,500 when the anachronistic song appeared.

After the screening, most people said they had enjoyed the film, specially dubbed from English into Russian at Mosfilm over the last three days.

"I was puzzled at first because it's not really the 'Onegin' I know," said one young woman. "But once I realized that this was an English view of the story, even though it was all shot in Russia, I really began to enjoy it."

Most modern Russian productions of Pushkin's work take far more liberties than using songs that have a modern connotation for viewers, Moscow playwright Elena Gremina said.

"The film grasped something really very important about Pushkin's intonation," she added. "They kept the Pushkin mystery and it left one feeling emotional, which is exactly how Pushkin should be."

Ralph Fiennes, who introduced the film speaking in fluent Russian, stressed the film was an English interpretation of Pushkin, which had been made with "great love."

Diamond of Seven Arts insisted that the director knew the song was popular in the 1930s, but was aware it had much older roots. It had been used because it fitted the scene and the characters portrayed and there were no plans to redub the song, he said.

Distributors West Video will open the movie at selected theaters in Moscow today and plan to exhibit it throughout Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union.

(Thanks to Kari)

Filming Russia's Sacred Text The Economist

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