|Oscar and Lucinda
Take a Booker Prize-winning novel with historical themes. Add Ralph
Fiennes in the leading male role. Film on location in exotic places. Doesn't
this sound a lot like the Oscar-winning Best Picture THE ENGLISH PATIENT?
Well, yes, but I'm talking is Gillian Armstrong's film OSCAR AND LUCINDA.
Based on Peter Carey's 1988 novel, it is a tale of God, glass and gambling
set in Victorian times; a love story between two social misfits, a gawky
British clergyman and an Australian heiress, and a period piece with
contemporary resonance, exploring societal judgments, addictions and
spiritual pursuits in mercenary times.
The fatalistic Oscar Hopkins (played by Fiennes) rejects his austere
upbringing in the Plymouth Brethren for the Anglican church. While studying
for the ministry at university, he is exposed to gambling and becomes
addicted, using a winning formula to earn money to support himself. On
the other side of the world in Australia, Lucinda Leplastrier (newcomer Cate
Blanchett) inherits a large sum of money and purchases a glass factory
which she operates with the assistance of another man of the cloth,
Rev. Hasset. Lucinda is a modern woman in very Victorian times: she
wears bloomers, smokes and gambles. Their paths cross on a sea voyage
where they discover their mutual love of gambling. In Australia, they fall
in love, but fail to connect. Oscar believes Lucinda to be in love with Hasset
and Lucinda does not know how to express her emotions. To prove his
love to her, Oscar proposes building a glass church and delivering it to
Hasset, who has been exiled to a remote community because of his dealings
What has been fashioned from this fantastic novel is a film of nuance
and beauty. Armstrong has always favored films with strong relationships
— and headstrong women — at their center and OSCAR AND LUCINDA
does not disappoint. "[It] was a story that when I read it stayed with me,"
she has said. "It's an incredibly original and seductive and clever and
ultimately emotional tale that I spent a long time feeling that it was
worth the struggle and effort to make."
Armstrong made her feature debut with MY BRILLIANT CAREER
in 1979 and has been the guiding force behind such fine films as
THE LAST DAYS OF CHEZ NOUR, MRS. SOFFEL, HIGH TIDE, and the 1995
remake of LITTLE WOMEN. Be warned, though, this petite blonde has
very strong opinions about her film: She believes that the audience
should see the film without having read the novel. When asked
to elaborate, Armstrong replied, "I suppose it's a competition between
two storytellers, with Peter Carey and me telling the story on film. I
love it to think that my audience is fresh really— and going on a journey
with a story and not expecting or thinking about what's going to happen
She continued, "I think there's the thing of if you've read a book
first then you see the film, you have imagined often the characters and
circumstances in your own head and what we — the visualizers — worry
about is that we'll never live up to your incredible imaginations, You
may have seen and imagined a Lucinda and Oscar that aren't like the
ones that are finally walking on the screen delivering the lines. I've had
so many people who've read the book who've said — How are you going
to go the church? How is it ever going to live up to my incredible vision
of it? I must say I'm quite relaxed about this now, because I've met a
lot of people who've read the book who are very happy with our film and
who also said that they found the sequence of the church as magical as
it was in the book. So, I don't mind it anymore. I've been passed by
OSCAR AND LUCINDA devotees."
And well she should. The film succeeds on a number of levels from
the period details to the performances. Cate Blanchett proves a real find.
A relative newcomer to films, she received the 1997 Australian Film
Institute Best Supporting Actress Award for the comedy THANK GOD HE
MET LIZZIE (which has not been picked up for release in the USA).
Blanchett became established as a stage actress and tested for the role
of Lucinda. "She came in and a really wonderful test, with a cold, with no
eyebrows and pure white hair, as she was playing Miranda in The Tempest,"
according to Armstrong. She proved an inspired choice and developed a
wonderful screen chemistry with Ralph Fiennes. (In an ironic twist, one
of her leading men in a subsequent feature, ELIZABETH, about the
Tudor queen, was Fiennes younger brother Joseph.)
The publicity material quoted Ralph Fiennes as saying that he
identified most with Oscar than any other character he has played.
(Considering the roles he's played — a Nazi officer, Charles Van Doren,
a sleazy dealer in contraband, a Hungarian count who turns spy —
these are dark chararacters — it's no wonder.) When pressed, however,
the actor explained that his desire to play the character came from
"the peculiar tragic nature of the story" and "a gut response". He saw
it as "a wonderfully challenging part for an actor. Oscar is who he is.
He's not a conventional hero. He's very feminine in many ways. He's
very undecided in many ways. He's guilty, feels guilty. Inspired at
times. And is honest about his own fear ... I suppose he's not
what people think of as a leading romantic hero — but then I don't
think of myself as that either. I think of myself as an actor." Asked
what particularly appealed to him about the character, Fiennes replied,
"His vulnerability. His torment. His poetic imagination. His ecstatic
feelings at times — that sort of switch back in his mentality ... [Oscar]
is in the tradition of 'the Holy Fool'. I don't know why but I find characters
like that very moving — they're intrinsically good but they're lost or allow
themselves to get lost — ethically — ... and that struggle inside people,
even in one's own life, I find deeply human and deeply moving. Helping
each other go through and come through that struggle is part of what
we do in life."
In fact, Armstrong approached Fiennes about playing Oscar in
1993, before the release of SCHINDLER'S LIST and QUIZ SHOW, before
he achieved stardom and earned accolades. He does not disappoint,
delivering one of his best screen performances. Fiennes died his hair
an orange-red for the role and lost weight to achieve the look of an
"Odd Bod" as the character is nicknamed. There is a lightness to this
portrayal that has previously been untapped in other roles, partly
because there are several comic scenes. One of particular note is the
first real encounter between Oscar and Lucinda. She has asked him
to hear her confession and when he arrives at her stateroom, they
discover their mutual vice, gambling.
Laura Jones' screenplay is fairly faithful to the novel; only near
the end do the two stories vary. Devotees of the book may be
disappointed, but author Peter Carey was pleased. "I thought it was
a stroke of genius. Given that there are real commercial pressures,
no one is going to give you money for a down ending. It's a down
enough ending anyway. I thought [the ending] was really clever; it did
not betray the book. It obviously changes some elements of the story
... [but] I thought what they did was really moving. If I'd thought about
it, I might have done it. I felt really fine about it." And well he should.
All involved have created a wonderful film that is well work seeing.
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.