Reviewed by: Charity Bishop
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Cate Blanchett, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Wilkinson, Richard Roxburgh | Director: Gillian Armstrong | Producers: Robin Dalton, Timothy White, Mark Turnbull | Screenwriter: Laura Jones, from the novel by Peter Carey | Released By: Fox Searchlight Pictures
“They were two improbable dreamers who dared to play the game of love, faith, and chance.”
After her great success with the most recent adaptation of “Little Women,” director Gillian Armstrong gave us this film starring Cate Blanchett (“Elizabeth,” “An Ideal Husband”) and Ralph Fiennes (“The English Patient”). Oscar Hopkins (Fiennes) is a misguided, trusting young man on whom people like to prey. Some might even call him a post-modern Forrest Gump, as the similarities are definitely there. The son of an extremely strict religious fanatic (who believes that Christmas is the celebration of pagans), Oscar feels led by God to leave his family and pursue a position as a priest with the Church of England. While under the tutelage of a well-meaning older priest, one of Oscar’s associates introduces him to the fine art of gambling.
Unusually successful but penitent, Oscar keeps only what he needs and gives the rest to the poor. But seeing his apparent weakness, he vows to stop gambling. In the meantime, thousands of miles away, Lucinda Leplastrier (Blanchett) has inherited her mother’s vast fortune. Determined to prove that the business world is not merely a man’s domain, she purchases a glass works and begins production. She, too, has an affinity for gambling, and the two become fast friends on board a ship. However, Oscar’s fear of the water drives him into seclusion in his cabin and Lucinda momentarily forgets him.
Some time later, in Wales, Lucinda falls for the local reverend, who is sent away by the church to the remote wilds of Australia. Her misery leads her to a gambling house… and she once again meets up with the likable Oscar. The pair become inseparable, both isolated from society for various reasons. Like two children at play, they adore one another’s company, but Oscar believes that he has not completely won over Lucinda’s heart. Determined to prove his love to her, he will make the ultimate wager… that he can make her dream of delivering a church to her mislaid reverend come true. But there’s a catch… the church is to be made entirely of glass. And it must be delivered over some of the most remote and treacherous countryside in the world.
Lucinda doesn’t believe that he can deliver by the deadline, yet doesn’t shy away from a high-stakes bet. The loser will hand over their inheritance… for Lucinda, this will mean her entire glass factory; for Oscar, his lands and properties once his father has died. But as Oscar sets out to prove himself, Lucinda begins second-guessing their hasty arrangements. In the meantime, her poor Oscar is caught up in the midst of compromise and brutality at the hands of the expedition’s leader, who enjoys killing natives just for fun. Unfortunately, Lucinda will be a full ten days behind them upon their trail…
The film in itself is playful at times, dark at others, but takes care not to tread too deeply into the emotions of the viewers. The acting in the production is some of the best I’ve seen—more is expressed through glances and movement than words could ever express. One tends to become extremely attached to Oscar and his naive faith in the good of mankind. His faith in God is never shaken, and he rebukes himself harshly for his flaws. Were it not for his and Lucinda’s gambling problems, they would be ideal role models. Gambling isn’t encouraged, but neither is it shunned. Their childlike enjoyment of cards and even such simplistic ordeals as scrubbing floors gives way to a gentle romance.
The ending leaves one with a somber feeling but respect for the characters, Lucinda most prominently. Billed as a “tragic romance,” it is that and more. The depth of the scenes almost displaces the difficult storyline, which is at times hard to follow and understand if one has not a good grip of 19th century ideals. However, the film has a few profound flaws that viewers should take into account should they decide to give “Oscar and Lucind”a a spin in the VCR. While profanity and other minor cautions are almost obsolete, there are several sexual insinuations and some violence. Natives are brutally killed by Jeffries. He then, in a fit of fury, attempts to take a saber to Oscar. The end result is his death, hacked once with a hatchet in the arm and then impaled in the head. (No visibility; the hatchet is brought down, some blood sprays the attacker’s chin, and the man drops.)
One scene involves a native woman in a bar; several men visit her behind the curtain, but there’s no obvious movement or nudity. There’s brief rear nudity of a young aborigine. While both scenes are short and could have been overlooked, the most offensive encounter in the film comes when Oscar, almost faint with illness and fear from a river voyage, is tended to by the local widow, who takes advantage of his instability and compromises him. While there’s no visible nudity (albeit, inappropriate touching and movement) the scene is unnerving and sadly necessary to explain the last half of the film. (The woman becomes pregnant. Oscar, believing that he was the seducer, intends to marry her out of duty.)
There is nothing overly offensive (visually) about this production, but nothing to make it worthwhile either, unless one can count the simple lessons of charity, kindness, and faith that the major players have to offer. In one poignant scene, Oscar kneels before his chair and pleads with God to forgive him for everything that he has done. I should mention that while at times the church is glorified, at others it proves strangely misleading. One reverend commits suicide, therefore “condemning his soul eternally to hell.” There is no apparent reason nor motive and the affair wreaks havoc upon poor Oscar’s emotions.
In conclusion, it’s a mixed bag. I’m not sure that the R rating is appropriate, considering what Hollywood has managed to slide into the PG-13 realm over the last few years. Cate Blanchett gives the role of her life; the charisma between her and Ralph Fiennes is intense. But for more conservative and conscious viewers, the film sends too many mixed signals to get the clear go-ahead.