Courtesy Photo
Opened: Friday, January 23, 1998
Rated: R

Directed by Gillian Armstrong

Starring Ralph Finnes, Cate Blanchett & Ciaran Hinds.

"Oscar & Lucinda"

I am a sucker for a good tragic romance. A period piece, so much the better. So I had a pretty good idea that "Oscar & Lucinda" would float my boat. But this unconventional love story is something truly unique and extraordinary.

Starring Ralph Finnes in an emotionally naked role that makes his hero in "The English Patient" look like a pillar of stone, "Oscar & Lucinda" poetically mines the deep, tender feelings of two perfectly matched, eccentric, Victorian misfits who live literally a world apart but are fated to meet and fall strangely, desperately in love.

Finnes plays Oscar, a gawky, ill-proportioned English minister with unkempt, bright red hair. A wild, fluttering oddball who is uncomfortable with the conventions of organized religion, as a teen he left the home of his insanely Calvinist father to find his own, more free relationship with God.

A pathological and crafty gambler who gives his winnings to charity, Oscar is misunderstood in the church, in the betting halls and by nearly everyone he meets.

But then there is Lucinda. An Australian girl who grew up on a farm, she is a "proud square peg" who defiantly wears bloomers and overcoats, and with an inheritance purchases a failing glassworks out of her obsession with the elegant simplicity of glass.

A figure of gossip because she runs her own business and attends parties unaccompanied, Lucinda (played by Cate Blanchett, "Paradise Road") is a giddy, emotional girl; vulnerable in the most feminine way, but strong in spirit. A stunning, unorthodox beauty, she too has red hair, in soft, untamed curls.

As fate would have it, these two meet on a ship bound for Australia when Lucinda realizes Oscar is a man of the cloth and asks him to hear her confession -- in part about her insatiable appetite for gambling.

Director Gillian Armstrong ("Little Women," "My Brilliant Career") shows a profound interest in the characters' individually fascinating stories, each of which could be a movie in itself, but when they come together in this scene, the epiphany that passes between them is so pronounced that even the audience get butterflies in the stomach.

Lucinda has cards on the table of her cabin, which they both begin to toy with unconsciously as they introduce themselves. They immediately recognize each other as card sharks and a polite game begins that quickly crescendos into a passionate contest with near sexual intensity, complete with baited breath and lustfully exchanged, fiery stares.

But their affection remains unspoken. They arrive in Australia, where Lucinda is reminded of her fading infatuation on another man and a flustered Oscar sets out to find some way to win her heart, not realizing in his insecurity that he already has it.

Armstrong illustrates "Oscar & Lucinda" with a painter's eye. She canvases the film with wonderfully vibrant colors set against the gray tones of the English sky and the dusty browns of the Australian frontier.

She also plumbs Lucinda's glass fixation for cinematic symbols. Marbles rolling around her cabin betray the rough seas outside, and Oscar's eventual proposal to endear himself to Lucinda proves to be a heavy vessel for emotional tokens -- he designs a church made entirely of glass.

But Oscar is misguided. He decides to prove his devotion by transporting this church across the still wild Australian outback to a colony supervised by his perceived romantic rival. The decision proves tragic. He is not a rugged man and he comes to regard the trials he faces on the journey as holy punishment for his pride, passion and gambling. The trip was also unnecessary since Lucinda decides to travel by steamer and meet him there to declare her love.

Finnes has proven himself one of cinemas more remarkable talents, but this is his best performance yet. His awkward, excitable Oscar bears no resemblance to any character we've seen from him before, but whatever it is about Finnes that engages us is very much present.

He is well matched in zeal and intensity by Cate Blanchett, who gives Lucinda a positively contagious vitality.

But they are both matched by Armstrong's dedicated orchestration. With a lovingly adapted script by Laura Jones (from Peter Carey's novel) to work from, "Oscar & Lucinda" is astonishing in its lyrical flood of emotion and its deliciously artful cinematography (a shot of the glass church being floated down a river is unforgettable).

The film has a remarkable sense of time and place, thanks to astute art direction and fine costumes, and Armstrong's only misstep comes in the editing. Clearly sacrifices were made for the sake of running time (the film is still 131 minutes), and some incidental information is lost in several abbreviated conversations.

But all that really means is that you have to pay close attention, which in a film as engrossing as "Oscar & Lucinda," should not be a problem at all.

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