Truly Great Movies – Oscar and Lucinda (1997)
“You could not tell a story like this. A story like this you could only feel.” – Peter Carey, author of Oscar and Lucinda
Oscar and Lucinda is neither a sweeping period epic nor a traditional romance. This is part of what makes it so unique and so overwhelmingly powerful. Based on the Booker-prize winning novel by Australian author Peter Carey, it is the story of two gamblers who are souls adrift in a world which does not understand either their charms or their purpose. As the narrator of the novel (and in the movie, voiced by Geoffrey Rush), whose identity we do not discover until later in the story states, “In order that I exist, two gamblers, one obsessive, the other compulsive, must meet.”
It’s an intriguing and poetic beginning to a love story that is both winsome and heartbreaking. The film, directed by Australian director Gillian Armstrong (in the U.S. best known for her wonderful adaptation of Little Women in 1994), is a well-crafted ballad dedicated not just to Carey’s incredible characters, but to the strangeness and beauty of Australia itself. Set in the mid 1800s, when society in Sydney was just beginning to bloom, it tells the tale of two seemingly different persons brought together by their vices, who find in each other a reason to exist.
Oscar (Ralph Fiennes) is an English Anglican priest haunted by the harsh treatment of his indifferent father, who was never the same after the drowning of Oscar’s mother. Oscar himself is terrified of the sea. It stands as a barrier to his goal of ministering in far-off heathen Australia. Oscar is a timid, friendly soul who wants to do good in the world, but is hampered by his obsession with gambling. It’s an unfortunate habit for a priest to have developed. He does not gamble for the money. In fact, he gives what he earns directly back to the church (which no doubt would disapprove of his methods). He is tormented with overwhelming guilt over his gambling, but like most addicts, he cannot stop.
Lucinda (Cate Blanchett) is a true daughter of Australia. Her parents raised her (on a farm outside of Sydney) to be strong, brave and true to herself. She does not understand how rare this is until both parents pass away, leaving her alone and with a small fortune they had invested in her future. She’s a red-headed, gangly tomboy who sets off for Sydney determined to build something with her money. It’s in Sydney that she learns to gamble. The society grand dames will not give her the time of day, so she relies on her good friend and mentor, the Reverend Dennis Hasset (Ciaran Hinds) to give her both financial and social advice. She develops a crush on him, but he is frightened by her unusualness, afraid of the very qualities we as the audience admire in her.
Lucinda buys a glass factory with her fortune and creates a successful business. On the way home from a business trip, she meets Oscar, who is on his way to Sydney. It is a mis-matched and awkward meeting at first, until they both discover their mutual love of cards and gambling. Here is where the movie kicks into high gear, and the talents of both Blanchett and Fiennes shine. Over the card table, their eyes gleam and sparkle, and their banter is both witty and endearing. Both are ashamed of their habit, but overjoyed to find a soul-mate. Oscar states, ” We bet that there is a God. We bet our life on it. We calculate the odds, the return… I cannot believe
that such a God whose fundamental requirement of us is that we gamble our mortal souls can look unkindly on a chap wagering a few quid on the likelihood of a dumb animal crossing the line first!”
Back in Sydney, Reverend Hasset, scared of his growing love for an inappropriate woman such as Lucinda, runs off to the wilds of the bush to minister to an upstart colony and marry a proper wife. His replacement, of course, is Oscar, though Oscar courts the displeasure of Sydney society by playing cards with Lucinda in the wee hours of the morning. In disgrace, he moves in with Lucinda, setting Sydney society in an uproar. Lucinda could care less what the mucky-mucks think. Oscar, however, is once again tormented with guilt that he is destroying Lucinda’s good name. He loves her purely, unconditionally and innocently. He does not know how to capture her love and is so afraid of losing it that he does not see how much she longs for him in return.
In order to make his peace with God and prove his love for Lucinda, Oscar wagers one final bet. He bets that he can transport Lucinda’s masterwork creation, a church made entirely of glass, to Reverend Hasset’s needy flock in the bush. It is a staggering wager that has consequences for all the major characters.
Oscar and Lucinda is a masterful film that manages to uplift, shock, and dismay all in the space of two hours. Armstrong has such amazing performers to work with and a stunning source in Carey’s novel. Blanchett’s first leading performance is as astounding as her breakthrough in her next film, Elizabeth. She is wide-eyed and innocent, yet also strong and willful. Fiennes here plays a role unlike the hardened and steely villains he has become known for in recent years, of a man with a divided soul.
On the whole, Oscar and Lucinda is a wonderful gem of a film that doesn’t fit into the usual “period film” stereotypes. It’s a great and overlooked masterpiece that tells the heartbreaking story of two incredible characters.