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
 Well, yes, but I'm talking is Gillian Armstrong's film
 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
 with Lucinda.

         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
 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
 in 1979 and has been the guiding force behind such fine films as
 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

         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
(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
  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.

                                  Rating:        B+
© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.