Rated R - Running time: 2:12 - Released 12/31/97

Director Gillian Armstrong distinguishes herself with Oscar and Lucinda, a story set in the mid-19th century about two people and their attempts to deal with a common inner conflict--between religious fervor and compulsive gambling. Written by Laura Jones, based on the novel by Peter Carey, this sad tale is a symbol of man's weakness, and yet it is heroic in a way, showing the victory of love over despair.

The two title characters don't meet until well into the film, after we have learned all about Oscar's (Ralph Fiennes) boyhood in a fiercely religious family. After he leaves to become an Anglican priest, he takes up the practice of betting on horse races. With some uncanny sixth sense, he wins repeatedly and becomes quite wealthy for a student. But every week he dumps most of his winnings in the alms box, never even spending any on a new set of clothes, which he desperately needs.

Australian Lucinda (Cate Blanchett), on the other hand, inherits her fortune, which she quickly sinks into a glass factory in New South Wales. After having shown a good profit in the business, she takes up card playing. Although it is not looked upon as proper for a woman to gamble, she is defiant of convention after having her childhood home sold out from under her when her beloved mother had died.

The two meet on a ship bound for Australia, after both had sworn off gambling for life. She asks if she may make a confession, and when she admits to her compulsion, Oscar not only absolves her, but offers to play a few games. They become fast friends, and begin a great adventure together.

There is some beautiful imagery in this film, especially involving the solid glass church that Lucinda designs and Oscar delivers to the Australian outback. After the first hour, however, the film loses its spark and drags a bit. The chemistry between Fiennes and Blanchett is quite subtle; the acting is compelling, but since their friendship is a platonic one until late in the film, there is not the kind of deep romance one can sink one's teeth into. In fact, their main bond is gambling, a habit they both try repeatedly to break.

Oscar and Lucinda is a nicely done piece, with some satisfying cinema by Geoffrey Simpson, beautiful music by Thomas Newman, and meticulously researched costume design by Janet Patterson. It features nice acting throughout, especially by the two leads and by Ciarán Hinds as Lucinda's friend and business partner, Rev. Hassett. Also present is the voice of Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush (Shine) as the narrator. The story is not by any means a thriller, but has its moments. ****

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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