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Wagers of Sin

[whitespace] Oscar and Lucinda
Philip Le Masurier

All Played Out: Cate Blanchett and Ralph Fiennes rest from their labors in 'Oscar and Lucinda.'

Throwing the dice in 'Oscar and Lucinda'

By Richard von Busack

N O DOUBT SICK of playing Byronic parts, Ralph Fiennes has taken a role that suggests Martin Short gone serious. Playing a kindly but tormented saint in the strangely underwritten Victorian-era drama Oscar and Lucinda, Fiennes displays almost Stan Laurel-level pathos and callowness. Fiennes' Oscar Hopkins was raised in a fundamentalist religion of almost parodistic excess, where children are slapped for eating a Christmas pudding. Naturally, he developed a number of tics: a terror of open water and a ruinous love of gambling. As a young man, he goes to theological school to become an Anglican minister. From reading Shaw, Wodehouse and Waugh, you may have received the idea that in Anglicanism, bad manners are dreaded more than apostasy. But Oscar is uncommonly God-bothered, praying until his hands have to be bandaged.

Oscar is particularly frenzied at the thought that his love of cards may be a form of pleasure-seeking instead of a method of finding salvation. The French philosopher and mathematician Pascal once posited belief in God as a bet in which you gambled for the possibility of heaven. Oscar, too, feels that we are put here as a wager and that his own compulsive gambling is a way of worshipping (for good measure, he gives his winnings to the poor). The romantic match for this strange divine is glass-factory proprietor Lucinda Leplastrier (Cate Blanchett), "a proud square peg in a land of round holes." The two begin a chaste friendship that will end (we're told in an obtrusive narration by Geoffrey Rush) in the circumstances of Oscar's great-grandson's own birth: "In order that I exist the gamblers, one obsessive, one compulsive, must meet."

The promise of a consummation leads the audience on, but we aren't given enough detail to understand what the heroine sees in the hero. When Oscar goes on a mission to haul a steel-framed glass church to remotest Australia, the gesture seems like the clinch-denying prank of a hack scriptwriter instead of a noble quest. The scenes of the church floating down the river, shedding panes of glass along the way, do have that curious, obsessional splendor that only the most sincere of visionaries ever display, but by the end of the film, the glass is gone, and so is the magic.

Director Gillian Armstrong is a leading expert in feminist Victoriana (My Brilliant Career, Mrs. Soffel and Little Women ), and the production design is splendid in everything from the costumes to the elaborate figurehead on the prow of the ship aboard which the two meet. If only looks could save a movie, but near the end, the plot takes a bitter, arbitrary turn. Oscar and Lucinda is a strange, doomed hybrid of an intimate picture and an epic; neither its chemistry nor its profundity is worth defending.


Oscar and Lucinda (R; 131 min.), directed by Gillian Armstrong, written by Laura Jones, based on the novel by Peter Carey, photographed by Geoffrey Simpson and starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett.

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From the January 29-February 4, 1998 issue of Metro.

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