1999 Toronto International Film Festival Daily Update #12: "Bringing Down the Curtain"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 19, 1999

A giddy mixture of exhaustion and elation. Final images seen through a haze of fatigue. Movies running together into a continuum of colors and sounds, with only a few shining stars standing apart. These are a few of the sure signs that a film festival is coming to a close. Critics and rabid festival attendees alike can now enjoy a normal night's sleep with the sure knowledge that there are no early screenings tomorrow morning. Until the next festival, days will no longer be divided into film blocks; meals will not be muffins and burgers grabbed while on the run from one theater to another. And coffee will no longer be the only thing keeping many viewers from napping during a screening. Festivals are addictive, however, and, as with any addiction, there will be a period of withdrawal. As punishing as it can be to see four, five, or even six films per day for more than a week, when it's all over, the sense of emptiness can be overwhelming, with a letdown as painful as it is welcome.

In many ways, the choice to close out the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival with Onegin was an odd one. Certainly, lead actors Ralph Fiennes and Liv Tyler are marketable names, but they are not the biggest stars to have appeared at the festival this year (Bruce Willis and Denzel Washington, to name two, have a greater wattage). The movie, the directorial debut of Fiennes' sister, Martha, is oddly low profile. In fact, until it had been announced as the festival's final offering, I had never heard of it.

Quality-wise, Onegin is not a bad film, although it's not a great one, either. It's a period piece set in mid-19th century Russia, and focuses on the tragic, ironic love affair between the title character (played by a subdued Ralph Fiennes) and a young woman named Tatiana (Liv Tyler, who is surprisingly effective). At their first meeting in the countryside, Tantiana falls madly in love with Onegin, but, when she declares her feelings, the aristocrat gently rebuffs her, telling her that he's not made for marriage. Six years later, circumstances bring the pair together again, this time in St. Petersburg. Now, the tables have been reversed. Onegin is enraptured by Tatiana's beauty, but she is now happily married and shows no interest in reviving her old feelings.

Character development in Onegin, which is based on Aleksandr Pushkin's poem "Yevgeny Onegin," is spotty. It's strong enough for us to understand the protagonist's conflicted feelings, but not so forceful that we are truly drawn into the drama and emotion of the situation. Martha Fiennes' direction is stately and detached. The film looks great but moves slowly, and there is a tangible distance between the audience and the characters. It also feels like a significant portion of the second half was left on the cutting room floor (or never filmed). The first hour of Onegin, which details the first meeting between Yevgeny and Tatiana, is nicely detailed, but the events surrounding their reunion are rushed.

Onegin has an international distributor - Seven Arts - but it will likely not play in many U.S. theaters. It's the kind of movie that's worth seeing if it shows up at a convenient locale, but isn't worth searching out. Had it taken an "ordinary" slot in the festival, it would have seemed more impressive, but, as the Closing Night Gala - a position that should be given to a striking and memorable motion picture - Onegin come across as inadequate. It's little more than a truncated Masterpiece Theater mini-series with impeccable production values.

As is always the case, there were a few films I was unable to fit into one of my previous updates (for a variety of reasons). In brief, here are some thoughts on these four:

Finally, doing an overall roundup, here are the 39 films I have written about, divided into four categories:

Highly Recommended (must see): American Beauty, The Cider House Rules, Felicia's Journey, The Hurricane, The Legend of 1900, Mr. Death, Princess Mononoke, Snow Falling on Cedars, The War Zone

Recommended: 8 1/2 Women, Annaluise and Anton, Anywhere But Here, The Emperor and the Assassin, Guinevere, Happy Texas, The Life Before This, The Limey, Onegin, Pas de Scandale, Le Petit Voleur, Romance, Sunshine, Sweet and Lowdown, The Third Miracle, Tumbleweeds

Marginally Recommended: Dogma, Gamera 3, Gregory's Girls, Me Myself I

Not Recommended: All the Rage, The Big Brass Ring, Breakfast of Champions, The Item, Jakob the Liar, Judy Berlin, Moloch, Mumford, Music of the Heart, Simpatico

I'll be back on the festival circuit in another four months, when I'll be writing from the frozen tundra that it Park City, Utah in January...

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