Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

OSCAR AND LUCINDA (Australia, 1997) ** 3/4

Directed by Gillian Armstrong. Written by Laura Jones from the novel by Peter Carey. Photography, Geoffrey Simpson. Production design, Luciana Arrighi. Editing, Nicholas Beauman. Music, Thomas Newman. Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Oscar Hopkins), Cate Blanchett (Lucinda Leplastrier), Ciaran Hinds (Reverend Dennis Hasset), Tom Wilkinson (Hugh Stratton), Richard Roxburgh (Mr. Jeffris), Clive Russell (Theophilus), Bille Brown (Percy Smith), Josephine Burns (Miriam Chadwick), Barnaby Kay (Wardely Fish), Barry Otto (Jimmy D'Abbs), Linda Bassett (Betty Stratton). A Fox Searchlight release. 131 minutes. Rated R (sex, violence)

Religion and gambling make strange bedfellows. A rare subject for literature, too, as in the book that, in 1988, won England's paramount prize, the Booker, and became the source novel for the film "Oscar and Lucinda." Yet, the most famous gamble in history is Blaise Pascal's wager. The 17th century French writer, philosopher, mathematician, physicist bet on the existence of God, in what is probably the biggest win-win gamble ever. If God exists, you win. If He does not, you've lost nothing.

This bet is essentially reiterated in "Oscar and Lucinda, " though Pascal is not mentioned or credited. The bettor is Oscar, an Anglican minister whose story is told in flasback by his great-grandson.

Oscar, born in Victorian England, was a country boy from Devon, who lost his mother early. His father was a fundamentalist Christian, the leader of the local Plymouth Brethren. He saw other sects --including the Anglicans --as heretics, and even punished his son for tasting Christmas pudding, that work of the Devil.

His fanaticism drove Oscar into the household of an Anglican preacher, then to Oxford where he studied for the Ministry. An impecunious loner, Oscar became friends with a schoolmate who introduced him to betting on horses. The bug bit him with the strength of an Ebola virus. Rather than become that standard type of fiction, the addicted gambler who loses all, Oscar became a steady winner. He paid his debts, saved a pittance for his modest needs and placed his winnings in poor-boxes.

After ordination, to avoid the temptation of gambling while serving God, he decided to become a missionary in backwoods Australia. He made the long sea-voyage even though he had aquaphobia, an intense fear of water. I was amused by someone calling it "hydrophobia, " which evokes rabid dogs, bared fangs and awful drool, whereas poor Oscar is the soul of gentleness!

Lucinda was Australian, a girl with a will. She grew up in the country, had a fascination for glass, was totally orphaned and inherited a nice fortune. In Sydney she bought a glassworks and became that extreme rarity for her day, a female entrepreneur. In her private life, Lucinda was also an intense gambler who favored cards, played in the homes of known gamblers or in Chinese dens, wore (how shocking!) bloomers. She shared her love of glass with the Reverend Hasset. They became friends.All this made Lucinda more than suspect in the eyes of the public and the clergy.

When Lucinda had gone to England for modern equipment, and was returning to Australia, she and Oscar met on the ship, recognized their passion for gambling and became friends. Their relationship was not carnal, not even overtly amorous, although one suspects that it was an "amitie amoureuse, " -- stronger in Oscar's case. But he won't say a word since he believes that love exists between Lucinda and Hasset.

Now, Hasset, whose friendship with Lucinda has raised eyebrows among the clergy, has been exiled, appointed to a nothing place far within the outback. Oscar, in a strange move that allies glass and faith, has Lucinda's works construct a glass church which will be taken to the faraway boondocks to the Reverend Hasset.

"O & E" is an original tale, to say the least. The paperback edition of the book is 448 pages. The film is 131 minutes. There is no way that the novel could be transposed without huge cuts. As a result the movie is fascinating yet puzzling; fresh yet frustrating; complex but meandering.

At its most basic, a motion picture is an assembly of scenes that contain images that (generally) have movement in them. There are cuts and there are cuts. Editing (or cutting) can be slow or fast. Many cuts don't belabor matters yet convey the essentials. This is good. But when cuts make whole sections disappear, they may leave gaps and the audience wonders about what went on.

In "O & L" the absence of certain explanations diminishes characterizations, motivations and plain facts. Why is Oscar scared of water? (It is hinted at in the movie but not sufficiently explained). How did young Oscar fare after breaking with his father? Does Oscar think that there are no gambling opportunities in Australia? Why does he wear Salvation Army-type clothes when he later could afford better ones? And how is it that he can be a regular winner in the tricky area of gambling? What is his "system"? What was the source of Lucinda's passion for glass and where does her mother's wealth come from? What, for the public, are exactly the Prince Rupert's glass drops? Why, in the expedition to haul the glass church, does the hitherto rather pleasant leader, Mr. Jeffris turn into a killer? (Yes, there's a critique of racism toward the aborigines but it feels thrown in). Etc.

The film is disjointed and cloudy, although its beautiful photography, sets and often lush settings can captivate and temporarily refrain you from asking too many questions. The cast does very well with what it has, but it is all too sketchy. A pity, as the better Australian movies are strong on people, motivations and character developments, and that's also director Gillian Armstrong's forte: "My Brilliant Career, " "Mrs. Soffel, " "Little Women" and others.

"O & L" can be stunning with pictorials more than with its human psyches. The most quoted line comes from the narrator. "In order that I exist, two gamblers, one obsessive, one compulsive, must meet." Yet the difference between obsession and compulsion is murky at the very least.

Many touches of humor do make up partly for the film's frailties. The loss of Oscar's virginity is both comical and crucial to the plot. The jewel of the crown, however, is the transporting of the church, a sort of Fitzcarraldo Lite. It too could have used lengthening within a movie that needs an extra hour for catching up with the book.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel