"Oscar and Lucinda" is a truly poetic movie whose physical production is just as impressive as its spiritual aspirations. This Victorian-era romance revolves around two eccentric soulmates, reckless dreamers and gamblers superbly played by Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett.

“Oscar and Lucinda” is a truly poetic movie whose physical production is just as impressive as its spiritual aspirations. Demonstrating again director Gillian Armstrong’s meticulous attention to visual detail and her sharp observational powers in regard to human conduct, this Victorian-era romance revolves around two eccentric soulmates, reckless dreamers and gamblers superbly played by Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett. Pic is highly dependent on strong critical support, and Fox Searchlight faces an imposing marketing challenge in placing what’s basically a sumptuously mounted, idiosyncratic arthouse film on the agenda of mainstream patrons.

Armstrong’s best work (“My Brilliant Career,” “High Tide,” “The Last Days of Chez Nous”) has featured young, independent women who go against the traditional social grain to fulfill their creative and personal dreams. Yet to describe her as a feminist filmmaker is to limit her achievements within ideological constraints, for her remarkable talent is largely based on her clear-eyed observation of human relationships in all their magnetism, folly and untidiness.

Unlike some of her Aussie pics, which have been strong on characterization and nuance but short on plot, “Oscar and Lucinda” has an extremely rich story to tell. With touches of a quixotic fantasy, bizarre tale intertwines the fate of two misfits: Oscar (Fiennes), a deeply religious man with an obsessive talent for gambling, and Lucinda (Blanchett), a wealthy heiress with a particular fondness for poker games.

Faithfully adapted by Laura Jones from Peter Carey’s 1988 Booker Prize-winning novel, story is told in one long flashback from the p.o.v. of Oscar’s great grandson, who recounts the peculiar events leading to his birth. Pic’s first part, which depicts Oscar and Lucinda’s respective childhoods, is too literary, relying heavily on voiceover narration. This weakness is partly overcome by Armstrong’s masterly crosscutting between Oscar’s lonely boyhood in rural England, where he’s raised by a severe preacher father, and Lucinda’s education on an Australian farm, tutored by a strong, intelligent mother who was actively involved in the early feminist movement.

Film gains considerable momentum when the mature Oscar goes to Oxford to train as a minister, where he realizes once again that he “simply does not fit.” Terribly lonely and repressed, he meets a fellow named Wardley-Fish (Barnaby Kay) who introduces him to horse betting, with which he is instantly taken. Ironically, it’s the act of gambling that makes Oscar feel alive, compassionate and social — he gives away all of his winnings to the poor.

Oscar’s fateful meeting with Lucinda takes place on board a ship, when he determines to become a missionary in the Australian outback, and she returns from London after acquiring the latest machinery for her glass factory. “In order that I exist,” the narrator says, “two gamblers, one obsessive, one compulsive, must meet.” Indeed, in a brilliantly staged and hilariously funny scene, the two outcasts instantly connect upon recognizing each other’s “pathological” behavior. A most peculiar bond evolves between them, one that’s based on trust and is intimately romantic without being overtly carnal.

As their unusual relationship centers on games of chance, bets and wagering, it inevitably leads to gossip, scandal and controversy. Lucinda’s friendship with the Rev. Dennis Hasset (Ciaran Hinds), a man who shares her interest in glass, results in his exile to a remote community in New South Wales. Convinced that Lucinda is in love with Hasset, Oscar determines to build a glass church — a proper metaphor for their dazzling yet frail love — and transport it to the reverend. Needless to say, it’s an outrageous undertaking, carried out in the wilderness against all odds.

Armstrong and Jones smoothly navigate the magical tale through numerous shocking twists and turns until they bring it to a most logical, emotionally satisfying conclusion. Not only do eccentric individuals occupy center stage in their passionately told, deeply moving saga, but they don’t sort themselves out neatly for the alignment of our sympathies.

There’s a perfect match between the source material’s sense of fantasy and Armstrong’s subtle sensibilities as a director. Her astringent sense of humor, clarity of thought and creative resolve are in full evidence in this picture, her biggest and most ambitious to date. Film offers a densely textured chronicle of social mores, industrial development, religious debate, colonialism and repressed sexuality. And it doesn’t neglect the broader context, illuminating Victorian society at a time of change, when old beliefs were being contested by new economic realities, particularly as they affected Australia, then a young and struggling nation.

As the brave yet vulnerable man of God, who sounds like an angel but can’t really conceal his wild, devilish persona, Fiennes renders an astoundingly nuanced performance, easily his richest since “Schindler’s List.” In a role that Judy Davis was born to play (and that was in fact intended for her years back), luminous newcomer Blanchett also excels as the fiery, self-reliant female industrialist who lives by her own norms, defying society’s prohibitive definition of a “woman’s place.”

Visually and aurally, the film represents a spectacular achievement, thanks to Luciana Arrighi’s lavish production design, Janet Patterson’s opulent costumes, Geoffrey Simpson’s gorgeous lensing of uninhabited landscapes, Nicholas Beauman’s seamless editing, Thomas Newman’s appropriately bouncy and emotionally intense score — and last but not least, Geoffrey Rush’s humorous, ironic narration.

Oscar and Lucinda

Production

A Fox Searchlight release, in association with the Australian Film Finance Corp. and the New South Wales Film & Television Office, of a Dalton Films production, produced in association with Meridian Films. Produced by Robin Dalton, Timothy White. Directed by Gillian Armstrong. Screenplay, Laura Jones, based on the novel by Peter Carey.

Crew

Camera (Atlab color, Panavision widescreen), Geoffrey Simpson; editor, Nicholas Beauman; music, Thomas Newman; production design, Luciana Arrighi; art direction, Tom Nursey, John Wingrove (Australia), John Ralph, Paul Ghiradani (U.K.); set decoration, Sally Campbell (Australia); costume design, Janet Patterson; sound (Dolby digital), Ben Osmo; sound design, Andrew Plain; associate producer, Mark Turnbull; assistant directors, Mark Egerton (U.K.), Mark Turnbull; additional camera, Russell Boyd; second unit camera, Nigel Kirton (U.K.); casting, Alison Barrett, Kathleen Mackie. Reviewed at 20th Century Fox Studios, L.A., Nov. 17, 1997. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 132 MIN.

With

Oscar Hopkins - Ralph Fiennes Lucinda Leplastrier - Cate Blanchett Rev. Dennis Hasset - Ciaran Hinds Hugh Stratton - Tom Wilkinson Mr. Jeffris - Richard Roxburgh Theophilus - Clive Russell Percy Smith - Bille Brown Miriam Chadwick - Josephine Byrnes Wardley-Fish - Barnaby Kay Jimmy D'Abbs - Barry Otto Betty Stratton - Linda Bassett Narrator - Geoffrey Rush

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