Oscar and Lucinda is the kind of Australian film we don't see much of these days. Intelligent and quirky we get plenty of, and this has those qualities in spades, but it's also set in Australia's past - that place strip-minded by countless period dramas until the slightest mention of it has audiences wincing from sudden Sigrid Thornton flashbacks. Then again, if those period pieces had been made with half the spark and class of this film by Gillian (Little Women, The Last Days of Chez Nous) Armstrong, perhaps seeing a horse and cart travelling down a dusty track wouldn't automatically send audiences to sleep.
While Lucinda (Cate Blanchett) is growing up independent and headstrong in outback Australia in the mid-1800's, on the other side of the world in England shy and quirky Oscar (Ralph Fiennes) has received his calling from God: To become an Anglican minister. It's while following this path that he first discovers the joys of gambling, an activity he sees as being far from sinful so long as it's done solely to help the poor. Back in Australia Lucinda's on her own with a sizeable fortune after the death of her mother, and a life-long fascination with glass soon sees her buying the Prince Rupert glassworks in Sydney town.
Before long she's also swept up by the thrill of gambling, and it's after a trip to England to purchase the latest glass-blowing equipment that the film's two characters finally meet, as a guilt-ridden and water-phobic Oscar happens to be on the same ship heading to Australia, fleeing England as penance for his uncontrolled gambling. But he soon finds things for him aren't that much different in Australia, with only his stifled love for Lucinda keeping him out of the pit of gambling-related despair he sought to escape. Fired with passion, he comes up with a grand, crazy scheme: To build a church out of glass and transport it north to the rough'n ready town of Belligen. It's a tragedy waiting to happen, and for Oscar it doesn't wait long.
For a movie about characters fired by passion, this is more a film of the head than the heart. Based on the Booker-prise winning novel by Peter Carey, it suffers from a common problem with translating books to film: So much of making the cross-over successfully hangs on calculating what to remove and condense that often getting the story right wins out over capturing the feel. That's not to say this is just a dry, intellectual exercise - Fiennes and Blanchett both give fine performances, with the red-haired and fidgety Fiennes compelling from start to finish - but there's never any real chemistry between them, and without it all the twists and turns and symbolism of the story never really take hold. Armstrong's created a beautiful and never boring film packed with often suprising imagery, but despite it's many pluses it's just a little too cold at heart to ever really warm to.
Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte)