The sight of Ralph Fiennes speaking Russian in a distinctly Russian production is a very strange one, indeed. It calls to mind the instances where famous Western actors appear in the works of nationally specific auteurs, such as when Richard Gere bumbled his way through Akira Kurosawa’s Rhapsody in August without knowing a word of Japanese, or when Molly Ringwald and Woody Allen showed up in Jean-Luc Godard’s ludicrously impenetrable King Lear. The actor may want to challenge themselves, to secure a tempting pay cheque, or to simply revel in the absurdity of it all.
With Fiennes, the intention was almost certainly the former. He spent two months living in Moscow learning the language for the part, spoke in Russian throughout, and even re-dubbed his lines afterwards to make sure everything ran smoothly. He does acquit himself well; while it is a return to his doe-eyed heartthrob days of yore – as opposed to recent roles that gave him a chance to exercise his funny bone – no one can quite do sad, excessive politeness as well as Fiennes.
The problem is that his role as Mikhail Rakitin, a long-time admirer to the tricky Natalia Petrovna (Anna Astrakhantseva), is too small for an actor of his stature. The film is instead ruled by the two women of the title. Natalia is married to wealthy landowner Arkady Islaev (Alexander Baluev) and shares her country estate with Vera (Anna Levanova), her 17-year-old ward, and Quentin Tarantino look-alike Alexey Belyaev (Nikita Volkov). Belyaev is a young tutor who injects chaos into the household, as both Natalia and Vera fall hopelessly in love with him, creating a series of mannered misunderstandings.
It is adapted from Ivan Turgenev’s comedy of manners A Month in the Country, though most of the transgressive laughs the plays offers are dampened by Vera Glagoleva’s direction – she treats everything seriously, more interested in invoking the cinematic clichés of the repressive costume drama. But it is soapy enough to swallow without much resistance, like a vodka-flavoured episode of Downton Abbey.
Still, the question remains: why is Ralph Fiennes there? The answer has probably less to do with acting and more to do with securing an international audience; it’s the sort of film that would otherwise be suited to watching on television, at 1am in a hotel in Saint Petersburg.
Two Women is released in selected cinemas on 16th September 2016.
Watch the trailer for Two Women here: