Australian director Gillian Armstrong has brought several strong-willed, independent heroines to the screen, including not only Jo in her more recent Little Women, but the heroines in My Brilliant Career and The Last Days of Chez Nous.
Now, with the highly original Oscar and Lucinda she gives us Lucinda Leplastrier, a spirited Australian heiress at odds with the conservative 19th-century society in which she lives. Lucinda is a strong, intelligent and driven woman completely unselfconscious in her independence. Her behavior never hints at pretense; it's completely natural. She takes genuine pleasure in gambling, smoking and dressing as she pleases.
Armstrong's sweeping film version of Peter Carey's inventive 1988 Booker Prize-winning novel simultaneously follows the stories of Lucinda and of another societal misfit, Oscar Hopkins, a jittery Anglican minister who also has a keen passion for gambling. Their stories merge when they meet aboard a British ship bound for New Wales and play out against the backdrop of a sprawling continent that attracts misfits of all sorts.
Theirs is a most unusual tale, one that blends love and commerce, religion and colonialism. Geoffrey Rush serves as the film's narrator, a device that very effectively propels Carey's sure-footed narrative. Armstrong spent five years refining the script of her film, which has shades of the films Fitzcarraldo and The Piano as well as overtones of the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. The result is a transporting film of unexpected turns and unforgettable twists.
The story begins in Australia in 1848 with Lucinda, a "proud, square peg in a country where there were only round holes." When her cherished glass bauble (called a King Edward's Drop) breaks, it's a clever bit of foreshadowing that impresses upon the child the fragility of precious things.
Meanwhile, across the world in Devon, England, the flame-haired young Oscar is growing up with his minister father, a rigid fundamentalist who can't get over the death of his wife. To Oscar, the sea that surrounds their village always smelled of death and filled him with a dreadful fear of water, another bit of foreshadowing. Oscar's rebellion against his austere father takes him to the Anglican ministry. As a man, Oscar is a shy, nervous sort, almost painfully naive.
A friend introduces him to gambling and Oscar is immediately smitten. "I've been praying to God for funds and now I can pay my debts," he says, sure his discovery was arranged by divine providence. Seeing himself as an agent of God, he gambles not for personal gain, but to have funds to give the poor. Though he berates himself for his lack of willpower, he can't stop. He gambles on cards, on dogs, on whatever is going. Betting is like opium to him. And though he is terrified of water, he sets sail for New Wales on a wager.
After Lucinda reaches womanhood and inherits her mother's fortune, she is sent to England with an "itchy impatience to grasp the working world." Her fascination with shimmering glass leads her to build a life on the material, though she knows from experience how easily it shatters. A woman of means, she buys the Prince Rupert Glassworks in Sydney.
Oscar and Lucinda
Life's a gamble: Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett as Oscar and Lucinda
On the ship heading back to Australia, she meets the nervous young minister and asks him to hear her confession. And so the minister, an obsessive gambler, hears the confession of another compulsive gambler and their bond is forged.
Armstrong skillfully turns it into one of the film's most priceless scenes. "Where is the sin?" asks Oscar. "We bet! We bet there is a God, we bet our lives on it. We worship a God who requires we wager our souls on a bet. I can't believe he'd care that we wager a few quid on whether a dumb animal will cross the line."
Soon, the two are immersed in a gleeful game of cards. They're like two little children, Oscar, with his hair always wildly askew, looks like a scarecrow. Lucinda, in her calf-length dress with pants, thinks nothing of being in a man's private room for a heated game of cards. While they're oblivious to such things, everyone around them finds their innocent behavior completely scandalous.
In New Wales, they continue their card-playing, their affection for each other growing. But the nervous Oscar dares not declare himself. He is convinced Lucinda carries a flame for the Reverend Hassett, who has moved to an obscure outpost in the Outback. In his bid to win Lucinda's affections, Oscar lands on the ludicrous idea of presenting a glass church "like a kennel for God's angels" as a gift to the Reverend Hassett. Oscar himself will transport the glass chapel across the treacherous Outback. It's an idea of utter folly, but Oscar has latched onto it like an excited child. He is no more prepared for the dangerous expedition than he is capable of swimming the English Channel, but to him it is the way to secure Lucinda's love, and so he wagers all.
Peter Carey's novel is a sparkling fantasy that constantly surprises, and under Gillian Armstrong's marvelous direction, it remains a tale that, like most stories passed down along the generations, achieves mythic proportions.
Cate Blanchett and Ralph Fiennes are superbly cast for this poetic myth, bringing the requisite intensity to their characters. Blanchett's Lucinda is a refreshingly spirted character whose fire is tempered by a touching vulnerability and whose emotions run deep. Fiennes, truly an actor's actor, is so different in the roles he's played that it's impossible to typecast him. As Oscar, he's a peculiar, odd character who is almost Dickensian in his quirky mannerisms and behavior. Even the way he walks sets him apart. Fiennes pours his whole soul into the role, making Oscar a tortured man who, while forgiving of others, can't accept his own weaknesses or the pain he unintentionally causes others.
In supporting roles are other talented British actors whom we're happily seeing more of on this side of the pond. Tom Wilkinson (The Full Monty) plays the Anglican Minister who takes the young Oscar, in and Ciaran Hinds (Persuasion) plays Reverend Haskett.
Armstrong makes Oscar and Lucinda a film at once both comic and tragic. With a decidedly literary bent, she has created an epic film about chance and a multi-layered love story filled with symbolism and metaphor. Love and life itself are as fragile as the thin, transparent glass of Oscar and Lucinda's chapel. In both, anything can happen.