Oscar and Lucinda (1997): Directed by Gillian Armstrong, Starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett

Narrated by Geoffrey Rush

The A-talent team responsible for Gillian Armstrong’s superb rendition of The Little Women is once again behind the cameras of her Oscar and Lucinda, a truly poetic movie whose physical production is just as impressive as its spiritual aspirations.

Demonstrating again Armstrong’s meticulous attention to visual detail and her sharp observation powers of human conduct, this Victorian era romance revolves around two eccentric soul mates, reckless dreamers and gamblers, superbly played by Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett. Highly dependent on strong critical support, Fox Searchlight faces a marketing challenge in placing what’s basically a sumptuously mounted, idiosyncratic arthouse film on the agenda of mainstream patrons.

Armstrong is a feminist filmmaker whose best work (My Brilliant Career, High Tide, The Last Days of Chez Nous) has featured young, independent women who go against the traditional social grain to fulfill their creative and personal dreams. Yet to describe her as a feminist is to limit her achievements within the parameters of ideological constraints, for her remarkable talent is largely based on her clear-eyed observation of human relationships in all their magnetism, folly and untidiness.

Unlike some of her Aussie pics, which have been strong on characterization and nuance but short on plot, Oscar and Lucinda. actually has an extremely rich story to tell. With touches of a quixotic fantasy, truly bizarre tale intertwines the fate of two misfits: Oscar (Fiennes), a deeply religious man with an obsessive talent for gambling, and Lucinda (Blanchett), a wealthy heiress with a particular fondness for poker games.

Faithfully adapted by Laura Jones from Peter Carey’s highly acclaimed novel, story is told in one long flashback from the P.O.V. of Oscar’s great grandson, who recounts the peculiar events leading to his eventual birth. Pic’s first part, which depicts Oscar and Lucinda’s respective childhoods, is too literary, heavily relying on voice-over narration. This weakness is partly overcome by Armstrong’s masterly crosscutting between Oscar’s lonely boyhood in rural England, raised by a tough and severe preacher father, and Lucinda’s education on an Australian farm, tutored by a strong and intelligent mother who was actively involved in the early feminist movement.

Film gains considerable momentum when the mature Oscar goes to Oxford to train as a minister, where he realizes once again that he “simply does not fit.” Terribly lonely and repressed, he meets a fellow named Wardley-Fish (Barnaby Kay) who introduces him to horse betting, of which he has never heard but is instantly taken with. Ironically, it’s the act of gambling that makes Oscar feel alive, compassionate, and social for he gives away all of his earnings to the poor.

Oscar’s fateful meeting with Lucinda takes place on board a ship, when he determines to become a missionary in the Australian outback, and she returns from London after acquiring the latest machinery for her glass factory. “In order that I exist,” the narrator says, “two gamblers, one obsessive, one compulsive, must meet. Indeed, in a brilliantly staged and hilariously funny scene, the two outcasts instantly connect upon recognizing their “pathological” behavior. From then on, a most peculiar bond evolves between them, one that’s based on trust and is intimately romantic without being overtly carnal.

As their unusual relationship revolves centers on games of chance, bets and wagering, it inevitably leads to gossip, scandal and controversy. Lucinda’s friendship with reverend Dennis Hasset (Ciaran Hinds), a man who shares her interest in glass, results in his exile to a remote community in New South Wales. Convinced that Lucinda is in love with Hasset, Oscar determines to build a glass church–a proper metaphor for their dazzling yet frail love–and transport it to the reverend. Needless to say, it’s an outrageous undertaking, carried out in the wilderness against all odds.

It’s impossible to do justice to the richly detailed story and relate all the shocking twists and turns that eventually lead to Oscar’s tragic death and Lucinda’s adoption of his son from another woman. Suffice is to say that writer Jones and helmer Armstrong safely and smoothly navigate their magical tale until they bring it to a most logical, emotionally satisfying conclusion. Not only do eccentric individuals occupy center stage in their passionately told, deeply moving saga, they don’t sort themselves out neatly for the alignment of our sympathies.

There’s a perfect match between the fantasy-like source material and Armstrong’s subtle sensibilities as a director. Her astringent sense of humor, clarity of thought and creative resolve are in full evidence in Oscar and Lucinda, which is undoubtedly her biggest and most ambitious enterprise to date. Armstrong provides a densely textured chronicle of social mores, industrial development, religious debate on the meaning and existence of God, imperial colonialism and repressed sexuality. And she doesn’t neglect the broader context, illuminating Victorian society at a time of change, when old beliefs are being contested by new economic realities, particularly as they affect Australia, then a young and struggling nation.

As the brave yet vulnerable man of God, who sounds like an angel but can’t really conceal his wild, devilish persona, Fiennes renders an astoundingly multi-nuanced performance, easily his richest since Schindler’s List. In a role that Judy Davis was born to play (and was in fact intended for her years back), luminous newcomer Blanchett also excels as the fiery, self-reliant female industrialist who lives by her own norms, defying society’s prohibitive definition of a “woman’s place.”

Visually and aurally, the film represents a spectacular achievement, thanks to Luciana Arrighi’s lavish production design, Janet Patterson’s opulent costumes, Geoffrey Simpson’s gorgeous lensing of uninhabited landscapes, Nicolas Beauman’s seamless editing, Thomas Newman’s appropriately bouncy and emotionally intense score–and last but not least Geoffrey Rush’s humorous and ironic narration.