Oscar and Lucinda
Directed by Gillian Armstrong. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Cate Blanchett, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Wilkinson, Richard Roxburgh, Clive Russell. (1997, R, 131 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Feb. 20, 1998
People in glass churches shouldn't amount to great movie subjects, but all bets are off when it comes to Oscar and Lucinda. An eccentric, idiosyncratic story about glass, love, gambling, and Christian faith, Oscar and Lucinda is a high-wire kind of a movie -- you wait for its fragile glass structure to shatter or inevitably cloud up, but the film's roof beams keep poking upward toward loftier heights and fill the theatre with the intoxicating rush of ethereal air. Based on Peter Carey's 1988 Booker prize-winning novel (England's top literary award), Oscar and Lucinda was adapted for the screen by Laura Jones (Angel at My Table, Portrait of a Lady). In many ways, this period film about a couple of society's square pegs is familiar turf for director Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, Little Women), whose works are always populated with strong, self-confident female characters and the men who love them. Yet the visual and emotional delicacy of Oscar and Lucinda is also tempered by a strong comic and earthy streak. Set in Australia during the Victorian era, the film recounts the romance of Oscar and Lucinda, a pair of odd birds whose fate becomes forever entwined by a deck of cards and a transparent glass church. Their story begins with their childhood, introduced by an offscreen narrator (Oscar and Lucinda's future great-grandson) whose recitation has the richness of oral lore that has been passed down through the generations. Oscar (Fiennes) is the shy, awkward son of a severe preacher father. At a young age he asks God for a sign and leaves his father's stern influence, though his gangly body and deep-seated guilt make him a strange character well into his adulthood. While studying at Oxford for the ministry, Oscar discovers his knack for betting on horses. He's a steady winner who gives his earnings to the poor but when he recognizes that he has become obsessed by gambling, he flips a coin and decides to escape his temptation in the Australian outback. While traveling there, he meets Lucinda (Blanchett), an heiress of a Sydney glass works whose feminist mother raised her to become a “proud square peg.” Lucinda also harbors a weakness for wagering on cards, and thus a love begins. Yet as they grow closer, Oscar becomes convinced that Lucinda is really in love with the Reverend Dennis Hasset (Hinds), a glass connoisseur who has been exiled to a remote settlement in order to squelch festering rumors of improprieties with Lucinda. Then, faster than you can say Fitzcarraldo, Oscar hatches a bet as to whether or not he can deliver a glass cathedral to Reverend Hasset in the outback. It's all a mad gamble, full of folly, fervor, and inspiration. It is a tale like none other, a romance all their own, a saga for their progeny. Fiennes has not been this mesmerizing in a role since Schindler's List and newcomer Blanchett's luminescence recalls nothing so much as Judy Davis' stunning international debut in My Brilliant Career. Keeping with the spirit of its lead characters, Oscar and Lucinda is a movie best met with a gambler's faith: You may not be certain what it means in the end, but its magnificent payoff is nevertheless a sure thing.