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FIENNES, RALPH & MARTHA: Onegin

THE CRITICAL FIENNES SIBLINGS
Three of the four Fiennes siblings - Martha, Ralph and Magnus - worked together on a new adaptation of the classic Russian novel, Onegin; they worked together in a combination of criticism and teasing, they reveal to SANDRA BORDIGONI during this interview in Rome, on the eve of the film's Australian release (June 22, 2000).

(To Martha): With three of the Fiennes family involved in the making of this film -you two and your brother Magnus writing the music - it looks like a family project... so why was Joseph left out?
(Martha): because Joseph is a terrible actor! (laughs) No, Joseph was shooting Shakespeare in Love at that time. And as far as this film being a family project, we never meant it to be so. It sort of happened. I like working with Magnus because I've done it so many times previously in commercials and I trust him completely and work well with him.

(To both Martha and Ralph): Working with your siblings isn't always an easy experience, but you two seem to get on very well. What do you give to each other when you go through an experience like this together...
(Ralph): Well Martha and I tease each other and we're good at criticising each other in a constructive way. We laugh a lot and Martha teases me a lot, which is good because it helps me to take myself less seriously. And I hope I do the same for her. She's always flashing pictures of her children (they both laugh) and I am always very bored by it (more laugh)...

(Martha): He rolls his eyes, but just pretends to be bored...(laughs)

(Ralph): So I think we are affectionate though teasing, taking the mickey out of each other. I think we're not very demonstrative. We're not hugging and kissing all the time. Maybe that's very English. I am not very tactile. I tend to keep a certain distance, especially with people I don't know well. It must be my English inheritance ... but behind a close doors I am a demon ... (laughs).

(To Martha):Why did you choose to move from music videos and TV commercials to cinema?
I went to film school knowing from a very early age that I wanted to direct films, but its not the easiest thing to do. You can work for years developing projects, and indeed I was attached to projects, but just to get your first film is very difficult. It was always my intention to direct films. Anyway, when I left film school I happened to fall into making music videos and commercials; I was offered to do that, I didn't chase the industry. I earned my living by working in that industry and I've enjoyed it very much. I maybe could say that it helped me develop a language in cinema that interested me. And it's a visual language. But it was never my raison d'etre to make music videos and commercials. So the final frontier for me was in the feature area. And of course when Ralph first asked me to read this book, because he loved it, I was immediately possessed by it and that's how it all started.

(To Martha): But how does one go from a video clip to Pushkin, adapting a Russian novel in verses from the 19th century into cinematic language?
People often ask me this. But this film is the product of eight years of work and it's a huge landmark in my life, so it doesn't look like a fast transition from one media to the other for me. I am sure that some people can recognise some style in the film, in the visual and in the montage, that can be seen as similar to that of music videos. Anyway this is a 19th century, lyrical, tender, very highly observed poem, so of course I am not going to cut it like a rock'n'roll video. As far as the adaptation, I feel that is not been a definite process for me, it's been very much about trials and errors, a very natural, human, handmade process which happened over a long period of time.

(To Ralph) How did you develop the character...
(Ralph): Well, I trusted the emotions and the story of the film because they talk about the human heart, but obviously we decided to be true to the period and not to update it. I was always fascinated by history because I think that one can understand one's own time by looking back at previous times, not just the historical events, but customs, manners, attitudes. In the case of Onegin because he's such a dandy, I took a particular interest with the two designers of the clothes in the fastidious details that Pushkin describes. And we also incorporated that in developing the character; I wore a male corset which holds you in a certain way, and the whole way the costumes of this period are styled dictate something about your posture - and also about your personality. They have a sort of peacock presentation about them. And it's not only the way it looks but also the process of being dressed: you have to be so fastidious and use so much time to dress, and I found that so useful. And for me, before we shot a scene, the process of getting dressed was always a useful way into the character.

(To Ralph): The fact that the Onegin character is a mixture of Byron and Chekov, he is arrogant at the beginning and desperate in the end, does this mirror the condition of the western man of the new millennium?
(Ralph): Yes . . . I believe that there is a resurgence of characters like Onegin at this time - I am thinking of more dangerous figures, like Valmont, for instance, in Dangerous Liesons, or also more existential characters like Camus' The Stranger - because they are kind of anti-heroic who exist only in the moment and have no overall ethical structures. We see this spirit of desolation emerge in the late 20th century and proceed into the new millennium and for me Tatyana is emotional innocence and emotional honesty, and what is tragic about the story is that she suffers because of this.

When I read the poem I found it devastating, especially for its fatalistic quality - and I think that it is a lament that reflects so much of Pushkin himself. He was a passionate man, he was a revolutionary, provocative and he was led by is feelings, by his heart. He wasn't a saint, but he was often despised and my feeling is that society can suffocate passion and inspiration. I believe that this is typical of the artist and that these are the people that we have to champion, because the painter, the musician, the poet, even directors and actors are those who can speak to the passion, the true and positive sensibilities of the heart. And I think hierarchy, structures, politics, intrigue and the corporate world of today - which is the modern version of the St.Petersburg court of Onegin's time - can suffocate the light of the mind and the light of the spirit.

(To Ralph): You are already a stage and movie actor and a producer - would you like to direct as well, one day?
(Ralph): I would like to direct but I must say that having watched Martha and having gone through the whole production process I have much more respect towards producers and directors than I had before and I would not take on directing lightly now. I would have to have a project that I am very passionate about and I would have to gather an army of people around me who share my vision and truly collaborate with me. Otherwise it's just too hard.

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Martha and Ralph Fiennes

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