It's hard to figure out what angle the 1997 film Oscar and Lucinda is coming from.
At times it's a love story, and at its most romantic it's engaging and touching. But it
goes off-track in strange and unexpected ways that don't always add to the film.
Starting in the mid-19th Century, the film follows two independent thinkers as they
grow in wildly different environments: Oscar Hopkins (played as an adult by Ralph
Fiennes) is raised by his ultra-conservative father, a minister in a Christian order
called The Brethren. He's forbidden from simple pleasures like Christmas pudding ("The
food of Satan," according to dad) and eventually leaves his path up to God, when he
essentially creates a game of chance to choose a religious direction. When one toss of
a pebble after another comes up Anglican he leaves his father's home and joins the
parish of Hugh Stratton (Tom Wilkinson).
Eventually he finds himself in college, living
by very limited means. "Odd Bod," as his classmates teasingly call the awkward
student, discovers that he has an unusual aptitude for gambling and soon he's betting
on anything: Horses, dice, cards, dogs, anything that gives odds. He keeps only what he
needs and gives the rest to charity.
Meanwhile, Lucinda Leplastrier (Cate
Blanchett as an adult) lives on a farm in remote Australia, happily communing with
nature. When her father dies her mother reveals a desire to move back to England, but
they stay in Australia until Lucinda's mother dies as well, selling off their farmland
and leaving the young woman a pretty impressive inheritance. She moves to Sydney and
buys a glass factory. Lucinda, like Oscar, finds that she enjoys gambling and excels at
taking other people's money. In her case it's extra shocking thanks to the prevailing
notion that gambling is for men (although not much is made of this concept.)
Oscar and Lucinda don't cross paths until about 40 minutes into the film but when they
do there is mutual curiosity: Lucinda invites the terrified Oscar to her oceanliner room to take
her confession (Oscar is scared of the sea thanks to childhood trauma) and they
discover their shared love of gambling. When they return to Sydney, the pair develops an
interesting connection and the film avoids standard Hollywood cliche. The characters
are rich, complex adults who discover more about themselves as they grow closer to each
But then the film veers off on a weird tangent that it never really returns from: Oscar
has the idea to build a glass church and deliver it to Lucinda's old business advisor
at his new post as pastor of a remote church. Lucinda doesn't think he can do it over
the rugged landscape and he won't take a ship, so they bet their mismatched
inheritances on it. This weird turn combines every thematic element in the film (glass,
religion, the ocean, and gambling) but I'm not sure to what end. Suddenly what has been a
slow-building romantic drama becomes a weak remake of Fitzcarraldo complete with
an impossible journey, surreal imagery (the glass church floating on a raft) and the
cruel murder of Aboriginal natives. This plot also introduces the film's first boo-hiss
villain, a striking bit of characterization that seems out of place in a film
that otherwise has shown the inner strength in some pretty unsympathetic
This left turn also separates Oscar and Lucinda in a way that kills the momentum of
their relationship. It's a shame since both Fiennes and Blanchett had been doing such
beautiful work together until that point. Fiennes, who was best known until then for
his frightening performance in Schindler's List, displays an incredible ability
to play a youthful, innocent, nervous young man. He has a real spark as Oscar and is as
different from Schindler's List's Nazi officer and Strange Days' jaded
cyber-punk as can be. And Blanchett, in her first major role, really shines. Her
energy is infectious, as is her smile. Lucinda is a free-spirit, uninterested in what
society tells her a woman can do, and Blanchett makes this charming, energetic woman
But these fine performances (and director Gillian Armstrong's beautiful direction)
aren't served by a script as focused as it could have been. Somewhere in this story
(and perhaps in Peter Carey's original novel) is a complete tale of love between two
people who understand each other better than anyone else in the world, but Oscar and
Lucinda gets too distracted to fully explore that story.
The anamorphic widescreen video is quite beautiful. It's not razor-sharp (it's a touch
soft) but the colors are true and the transfer is clean. For such an inexpensive
release it's very nice looking.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is mostly clear. Some of the dialog is a bit soft, but
it's fine. The surrounds are used sparingly: This isn't a blaring mix, but it's nicely
done. There is also a stereo Spanish track as well as subtitles in English, French and Spanish.
Just a trailer.
Oscar and Lucinda is a film with a few too many metaphors and a few too many plot threads (there are a
number of subplots that I didn't even mention) that ultimately outweigh the tender love
story at the core. Still, there is a lot to enjoy about the central story, from the
rich characters to the fine performances. Fans of the film's stars must see the film
and anyone interested in quiet, thoughtful films should give it a shot.