By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated January 21, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Literary scholars have read nothing less than the sociopolitical history of Russia into Alexander Pushkin’s great 19th-century verse novel Eugene Onegin. We, on the other hand, read little beyond visual voluptuousness in Onegin, Martha Fiennes’ costume-drama adaptation offered to an audience so Pushkin-shy and Cyrillically challenged, the recorded AOL MovieFone service blithely calls it WUN-jin.

Such a pronunciation might have amused the effete, bored aristocrat Evgeny Onegin — that’s own-YAY-ghin — as the tedious provincialism of the middle class. The supercilious hero, who has inherited a country estate from his late uncle, treats the local gentry with the distracted amusement of a big-city sophisticate; he was, you might say, an ironist way ahead of the Letterman Epoch. In particular, he mocks the earnest emotionalism of his neighbor Lensky (Toby Stephens) and the good-hearted twitterings of Lensky’s fiancee, Olga (Lena Headey); Onegin even lightly dismisses the declaration of pure love offered him by Olga’s quiet, soulful sister, Tatyana (Liv Tyler), and in this he makes a terrible mistake. When he meets her again some years later, Tatyana has become the graceful wife of a nobleman (Martin Donovan) — and Onegin is tormented by love for the jewel he had so thoughtlessly undervalued.

Onegin is as pretty a picture as anyone could want of a Russian lit-flick: Mist rises off water during a predawn duel, sunlight streams romantically through tall trees as Tatyana idles her solitary time deep in the wildness of Mother Russia’s untamed Mother Nature. But, curiously, the creaminess of the production (fitted out with old-style original music by Magnus Fiennes, brother of Martha and Ralph) becomes its own end rather than means, because the slight charms of Tyler — pushing her top speed in Cookie’s Fortune — can’t support the crucial demands of playing Tatyana. With her girlish trusting gaze and womanly full mouth, Tyler is often capable of projecting eternal edge-of-ripeness. But Tatyana, the embodiment of a heroine whose still waters run deep, requires more maturity than Tyler as yet possesses. So the actress does a lot of slack-jawed staring, and a lot of standing in shadows, hidden from view. (This Tatyana is a major tree hugger.) These are expressions of blankness, not fullness.

And with no Tatyana with whom to really engage, Ralph Fiennes is left to emote for two, carrying the weight of the story in his every choice of gait or sigh or other bit of business; he looks overly ready to tote up the debts of a morally bankrupt man. The invigorating scenes between Fiennes and the accomplished Harriet Walter as the girls’ mother, scheming with Jane Austen-like ingenuity to get her daughters well married, suggest what Onegin might have looked like with sturdy bones as well as soft skin. B- — Lisa Schwarzbaum