Film Scouts Reviews

"Oscar and Lucinda"

by Karen Jaehne

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Filmmakers from Dreyer to Scorsese have tested God - not to mention us mere mortals - with their visions of religious experience. Aussie film director Gillian Armstrong is less concerned with man's relationship to God than with man's relationship to woman. In her adaptation of Peter Carey's celebrated novel, Armstrong develops the characters of Oscar and Lucinda around their obsession with gambling, which brings them together but never unites them.

The novel has prose that soars through abstractions and poetic imagery impossible to capture on film. Consider this description of the glass church that Oscar builds in order to get Lucinda to trust him: "All their emotions were fused together in this glass vision in which they saw that which cannot be seen - wonder, joy, the transparent traceries of angels dancing." The glass church floating down the river is one of the most splendid cinematic images ever, but how do you put "that which cannot be seen" on the screen? The reader is better rewarded than the movie-goer.

Still, Ralph Feinnes is fascinating as a neurasthenic man of God and Lady Luck. Even his devotion is a dicey proposition. He tosses coins and dice to make major decisions - ultimately to leave for Australia where - I dunno - they haven't yet discovered games of chance...? Anyway, Australia it is, but aboard The Leviathan (where the Biblical Jonah whaled away his time), he meets liberated Lucinda. She has inherited her mother's outback spirit and estate and invested it all in a glass factory. The story of Lucinda and Oscar becomes a teeter-totter of faith and despair, strength and vulnerability, daring and disaster, but it never loses its playfulness.

Feinnes is not the dashing, irresistible character we've come to expect him to play. Instead he seems to have shrunk. Wasted from worrying about God, he seems physically timid, yet a moral giant. Cate Blanchett is no less riveting. She endows the character of Lucinda with a willfulness that guarantees her freedom. Her need for gambling cannot easily be converted into a cypher that calls for sexual liberation; the excitement she gets from gambling makes up for a different kind of loneliness: she knows she is in control of her company, her comings and goings, indeed, her very destiny. As the dice roll, for a moment, something else is in control and she can measure herself against that. That is why she builds the church for Reverend Hasset - not for his love, but to do something "against all odds."

This is one of those love stories with a twist that a critic cannot betray. In my opinion, it is a valuable twist that is truly poignant and worthy of the time and money we like to invest in movie-going. But more than the twist, the story itself and these two characters are breath-taking. While most love stories on the silver screen wear their hearts on their sleeve (would the equivalent of that be dangling your heart from the projector?), "Oscar and Lucinda" has a buried treasure of a heart. The quality of love is measured against friendship, laughter, theology and dice. And to question the ways of the Lord is to question Love.

It's a little bit like Pascal's famous wager about the existence of God. Just as Pascal asserted that it made sense to bet on God, because if He existed, you were then safe. And if he did not exist, to believe in him cost you nothing anyway. Likewise with love: to love makes more sense than not to love. The worst thing that can happen is that it's unrequited; meanwhile, you've had the wonderful experience of giving your heart. A broken heart is better than an untouched heart.

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