Oscar and Lucinda (1997)

D: Gillian Anderson
S: Ralph Fiennes, Cate Blanchett, Tom Wilkinson

Oscar (Ralph Fiennes) is an Anglican priest and a compulsive gambler. Lucinda (Cate Blanchett), is a wealthy non-conformist and also a gambler. When the characters meet on a journey to Victorian Australia, a strange bond grows between them. Later, in a misguided attempt to win her trust, Oscar embarks on a foolhardy journey along the Australian coast with a glass church, on which he encounters several purgative difficulties he also hopes will redeem his soul.

Based on Peter Carey's Booker Prize winning novel, this film has many pleasures to offer the prospective viewer. Unfortunately, they are largely literary ones, as fans of the novel will affirm. The first half of the film is gripping and off beat. It deals nicely with the parallel but separate growth of its central characters into adulthood and full blown gambling addiction, and charts their eventual encounter and connection with affection and skill. It deals with the psychology of gambling very well, incorporating various relevant themes which cast inflections on the Victorian world in which Carey's novel was set. It is particularly good on the value (or lack thereof) of religious belief and money respectively in the face of a compulsion beyond rationality (gambling, and, of course, love). It is also frequently funny, and never less than interesting, if sometimes peculiar.

At the centre of its peculiarity is Fiennes, who gives an extraordinary performance as Oscar. His fidgety neurosis is so unnerving it makes you fear for the actor's own sanity (a bit like Gary Oldman in Leon/The Professional ). But he is neatly balanced by Blanchett's more grounded rendering of her character. An able supporting cast contributes, but, for the first half at least, the focus is firmly on Oscar and Lucinda, and is all the better for it. Their world is so self-contained as to provide marvellous critical weaponry with which to patiently dissect the social and moral milieu in which they live. Some of it is very funny, and though there are familiar images and motifs of Victoriana, this is far from a heritage film.

But the film's latter half is less satisfying, stretched out as it is across the singular journey undertaken by Oscar along the Australian coast. Incidents along the route which are supposedly meaningful come off as anecdotal, including his relationship with a smug and vicious character who emerges as the film's villain as quickly as he vanishes from it. Though the climax has strong echoes of Fitzcarraldo, and the comparison is inevitable, it never quite soars as it is supposed to, because due to the slackening of the pace and the inevitable separation of the characters, the drama is less intense.

It works on an intellectual level. It is clearly a study of various questions of Australian identity relating to the landscape and the people encountered by the expedition. It is also a story of romantic separation, and may squeeze a tear from those who have read the novel and can fill in the blanks for themselves. But the script does less than admirable service to its audience in its faithful translation of Carey's literary artistry. The internal world of the character is more difficult to portray in the face of seemingly disconnected experiences in the outer world. Oscar's sudden defence of aboriginal culture and vaguely hinted addiction to drugs happen so fast that there is no time for any of it to make dramatic sense. You also don't quite understand why any of it is necessary, except in the most abstract, rarefied way. You can sort of work out what it all means, but you can't really see it on screen.

But in general it is a well made film, beautifully photographed and well acted. Armstrong has made an earnest attempt to craft a great Australian film from a great Australian novel, but there is a certain sense that the latter has overwhelmed the former to the cost of its cinematic integrity. There are moments of visual power, but the drama is firmly centred on the rendering of a verbal narrative, made all the more emphatic by the ever-present voice over read by Geoffrey Rush (Shine). Which is not to say you won't like it. There is much to admire here, and there are those who will derive immense pleasure from it. But it is not a film for casual audiences, and yet not as great a work of cinema as seems to have been intended, which leaves it lost in the halfway house of cult success where the adaptation of Carey's Bliss also resides.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.