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On paper, Ralph Fiennes‘ turn in Two Women should have provided him with yet another new challenge — for this latest adaptation of Ivan Turgenev‘s play A Month in the Country, the British actor has to deliver all his lines in Russian opposite a nearly entirely Russian cast. Beyond this linguistic leap, however, this project in fact represents a regression of sorts for him: after the widely varied characters he has thrived on during the past decade (including In Bruges‘ potty-mouthed hitman, the comical concierge in The Grand Budapest Hotel and Voldemort in the Harry Potter films) Fiennes has somehow swung back to the lovelorn-sophisticate mode that saw him frequently typecast during the late 1990s.
There’s nothing wrong with the occasional blast from the past; what makes his presence in Two Women a disappointment is the lack of spark that set The English Patient, The End of the Affair or even Onegin ablaze when Fiennes was in his prime as the go-to guy for aristocratic angst. Fiennes’ superficial turn (in more ways than one, as his lines ended up overdubbed by a Russian voice actor) is hampered more by circumstances than ability: rather than playing on the multiple possibilities underlining Turgenev’s once-transgressive comedy of manners, actress-turned-filmmaker Vera Glagoleva‘s 21st century take is a po-faced, straitjacketed affair, as she (and her screenwriters Svetlana Grudovich and Olga Pogodina-Kuzima) play out the entangled relationships as excessively affected period drama.
While certainly lushly mounted, Two Women is at best a piece of dated heritage cinema, and at worst cliche-ridden pomp. Following award-winning bows at smaller Russian festivals at Smolensk (where the film was shot) and Blagoveshchensk, its berth as the Vladivostok International Film Festival opener will most probably be the high point, with Glagoleva probably facing a challenging task in securing more exposure on the film festival circuit and sustaining a thriving theatrical release at home or even abroad. The presence of Fiennes and French star Sylvie Testud (La Vie en Rose, Lourdes) might be able to snag the film television runs in Britain or Francophone territories.
Belying his top-billing presence, Fiennes actually has much less screen time than most of his Russian co-stars: as the title suggests, this is all about two female protagonists whose affections are made to represent their different predicaments at different phases in their lives. Married to a sound and sturdy landowner, Natalya (Anna Astrakhantseva) finds herself struggling to contain her fears of losing her desire and ability to be elicit desire as middle-age beckons; it’s a confused mental state which sees her string along Mikhail (Fiennes), a family friend whose affections she toys with while promising nothing in return.
The other half of the titular equation alludes to Natalya’s adopted daughter Vera (Anna Levanova), whose youthful vigor and blooming beauty has proved to be a challenge to the older woman, who is both her guardian and her rival as the star of the house. The rivalry eventually implodes as both women fall for Alexei (Nikita Volkov), the young tutor of Natalya’s son. What follows is a series of mental games and power plays, which, through confusion and misunderstanding, eventually also draw Mikhail, Natalya’s husband Arkady (Aleksandr Baluev) and a various family acquaintances into the mire.
Teeming with conventional visual signposts and musical motifs to pave the way for the progression of the plot — a rainstorm hits as troubles brew, for example — the film plays out with a straight face, the original material’s potential for humor all but scrubbed from the film.
What remains is in fact a tract highlighting the misfortunes of being a woman in older, more patriarchal cultures and times. While there’s hardly an overt tyrant in the story, the benign facades of all the men here belie a tendency to impose their own moral codes. Glagoleva’s emphasis on this is seen in the interaction between 36-year-old governess Lizabeta (Testud) and her suitor, Ignatiy (Sergei Yushkevich): what, in the text, was a comedic exchange about late marriage emerges here as the latter’s humiliation and the former’s downward- spiraling chances of securing a husband.
This ominous tone reflects the cynicism at work here, as all the characters are selfish beyond their seemingly calm and stately appearances. But there’s no charade on show here; in its place is heavy-handed melodrama that suffocates the characters and, in turn, the cast and finally the whole film.
Production company: Horosho Production House
Cast: Anna Astrakhantseva, Ralph Fiennes, Nikita Volkov, Anna Levanova, Sylvie Testud
Director: Vera Glagoleva
Screenwriters: ?Svetlana Grudovich, Olga Pogodina-Kuzima, based on Ivan Turgenev’s play ‘A Summer in the Country’
Producer: Natalya Ivanova, with Vera Glagoleva, Laurent Danielou, Antra Clinska
Executive producers: Maria Ksinopulo, Ekaterina Shavlova, Tim Macready, Mike Robinson, David R. Kelly
Director of photography: Gints Berzins
Production designer: Elena Zhukova, Olga Arkhipova
Editor: Aleksandr Amirov
Music: Sergei Banevich
Casting Director: Elizabeta Shmakova
Sales: Rezo Productions
No rating; 100 minutes
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