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Movie Review: Aussies High--Gamble on 'Oscar and Lucinda'

January 21, 1998|By Jason Myers

Movie Review: Aussies High-Gamble on 'Oscar and Lucinda'

Oscar Hopkins (Ralph Fiennes), a reticent religious man - the son of a zealous minister and himself a man of cloth - fumbles about in such shy uncertainty that when he finally does talk, it is in a stunning stuttering rush of ideas.

"Oscar and Lucinda" works in a similar fashion, behaving quietly, slowly, until it bursts forth in spontaneous exultation of the human spirit.

Adapted from the Booker prize-winning novel by Peter Carey, Gillian Armstrong ("Little Women") skillfully directs a film, set in the middle of 19th-century Australia, which sophisticated urban critics might call "quirky."

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On first appearance, Oscar, played with manic mannerisms by Fiennes, and Lucinda (Cate Blanchett,) a young lady enamored of glass buildings and card-playing, do seem merely the eccentric characters one might find in a Jim Jarmusch or Jane Campion film. Indeed, "Oscar and Lucinda," in its general tone, setting and beauty, recalls Campion's "The Piano."

But the quest of the main characters - ostensibly to transport a glass church across Australia; really to understand what it means to live and love - is completely unique, and, perhaps, not without its idiosyncrasies.

The risk of films that observe oddities of human behavior is that they can be as obtuse as they are original. As much as the distinctive qualities of character might define a person, they can make that person distant by a lack of universality. Arguments of type are merely rhetorical, however, for if people like Oscar and Lucinda, with their blithe bizarreness, did not exist, the world would be dull.

"Oscar and Lucinda" works its way into your heart with its strange, stirring rhythms. Its narrative has a jangling loose-spirit quality that sometimes lulls but often liberates the viewer into a world of fascinating chance.

The film relishes the spontaneity of lives changing on something slight as an ace of hearts, the wonderful, whimsical uncertainty of what-happens-next. Oscar and Lucinda do not so much merge in a classic romantic way, but diverge on paths bittersweetly parallel.

The two first meet on a ship that carries them from England to Australia, where Oscar, aquaphobic and aflutter in nervousness, counsels Lucinda on the harmless nature of gambling (Oscar himself has an affinity for horse races as well as card playing.) These boat scenes carry more nuance in their brief extent than "Titanic" does in all of its some 190 minutes.

Armstrong conveys subtleties of location and emotion, observing how they change minimally yet irrevocably. She skims away the surrealism that creeps into the film, and centers her aloof characters in a grounded romanticism. As Oscar, nauseous staring at the turbulent waters, tries to find reason, he discovers instead passion.

His bond with Lucinda and his addiction to gambling result in his excommunication from the Anglican church. In Fiennes' performance, which always seems one movement away from a breakdown, it is difficult to first register how heartbreaking this is for Oscar. It testifies to the fidelity of his love for Lucinda that he would sacrifice his religion for her.

In an obvious manner, his carriage of the glass church across a continent, trying at all costs to avoid water, is his attempt at redemption.

The geography of this voyage is so vibrant - I never have seen so many different shades of green - that you almost think it possible. What violence he encounters, however, further sullies his soul.

Choreographed in a bit too touching tableaux, the murders of aborigines by members of Oscar's expedition team is haunting nonetheless.

Oscar's ensuing retribution for the senseless carnage is the most startling screen slicing since Ada (Holly Hunter) had a finger dismembered in "The Piano." Oscar is akin to Ada in that he does not know how to give voice to the various feelings churning within him - only he prefers to stammer rather than to mute.

"Oscar and Lucinda" is admirable and affecting not for what it says, but for what its characters ultimately are unable to say.

Jason is a senior at North Hagerstown High School.

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